Oligodendroglial Alterations and the Role of Microglia in White Matter Injury: Relevance to Schizophrenia.
Center for Neuroscience Research, Children’s Research Institute, Children’s National Medical Center, Washington D.C., USA.
Schizophrenia is a chronic and debilitating mental illness characterized by a broad range of abnormal behaviors, including delusions and hallucinations, impaired cognitive function, as well as mood disturbances and social withdrawal.
Due to the heterogeneous nature of the disease, the causes of schizophrenia are very complex; its etiology is believed to involve multiple brain regions and the connections between them, and includes alterations in both gray and white matter regions.
The onset of symptoms varies with age and severity, and there is some debate over a degenerative or developmental etiology. Longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging studies have detected progressive gray matter loss in the first years of disease, suggesting neurodegeneration; but there is also increasing recognition of a temporal association between clinical complications at birth and disease onset that supports a neurodevelopmental origin.
Presently, neuronal abnormalities in schizophrenia are better understood than alterations in myelin-producing cells of the brain, the oligodendrocytes, which are the predominant constituents of white matter structures. Proper white matter development and its structural integrity critically impacts brain connectivity, which affects sensorimotor coordination and cognitive ability.
Evidence of defective white matter growth and compromised white matter integrity has been found in individuals at high risk of psychosis, and decreased numbers of mature oligodendrocytes are detected in schizophrenia patients.
Inflammatory markers, including proinflammatory cytokines and chemokines, are also associated with psychosis.
A relationship between risk of psychosis, white matter defects and prenatal inflammation is being established. Animal models of perinatal brain injury are successful in producing white matter damage in the brain, typified by hypomyelination and/or dysmyelination, impaired motor coordination and prepulse inhibition of the acoustic startle reflex, recapitulating structural and functional characteristics observed in schizophrenia.
In addition, elevated expression of inflammation-related genes in brain tissue and increased production of cytokines by blood cells from patients with schizophrenia indicate immunological dysfunction and abnormal inflammatory responses, which are also important underlying features in experimental models.
Microglia, resident immune defenders of the central nervous system, play important roles in the development and protection of neural cells, but can contribute to injury under pathological conditions.
This article discusses oligodendroglial changes in schizophrenia and focuses on microglial activity in the context of the disease, in neonatal brain injury and in various experimental models of white matter damage.
These include disorders associated with premature birth, and animal models of perinatal bacterial and viral infection, oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) and excess (hyperoxia), and elevated systemic proinflammatory cytokine levels.
We briefly review the effects of treatment with antipsychotic and anti-inflammatory agents in models of perinatal brain injury, and comment on the therapeutic potential of these strategies.
By understanding the neurobiological basis of oligodendroglial abnormalities in schizophrenia, it is hoped that patients will benefit from the availability of targeted and more efficacious treatment options.