Background: The zitter (zi/zi) rat, a loss-of-function mutant of the glycosylated transmembrane protein attractin (atrn), exhibits widespread age-dependent spongiform degeneration, hypomyelination, and abnormal metabolism of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the brain. To date, the mechanisms underlying these phenotypes have remained unclear. Results: Here, we show differentiation defects in zi/zi oligodendrocytes, accompanied by aberrant extension of cell-processes and hypomyelination. Axonal bundles were relatively preserved during postnatal development. With increasing in age, the injured oligodendrocytes in zi/zi rats become pathological, as evidenced by the accumulation of iron in their cell bodies. Immunohistochemical analysis revealed that atrn expression was absent from an oligodendrocyte lineage, including A2B5-positive progenitors and CNPase-positive differentiated cells. The number and distribution of Olig2-positive oligodendrocyte progenitors was unchanged in the zi/zi brain. Furthermore, an in vitro differentiation assay of cultured oligodendrocyte progenitors prepared from zi/zi brains revealed their normal competence for proliferation and differentiation into mature oligodendrocytes. Interestingly, we demonstrated the accelerated recruitment of ED1-positive macrophages/microglia to the developing zi/zi brain parenchyma prior to the onset of hypomyelination. Semiquantitative RT-PCR analysis revealed a significant up-regulation of CD26 and IL1-β in the zi/zi brain during this early postnatal stage. Conclusion: We demonstrated that the onset of the impairment of oligodendrocyte differentiation occurs in a non-cell autonomous manner in zi/zi rats. Hypomyelination of oligodendrocytes was not due to a failure of the intrinsic program of oligodendrocytes, but rather, was caused by extrinsic factors that interrupt oligodendrocyte development. It is likely that macrophage/microglial activation in the zi/zi CNS leads to disturbances in oligodendrocyte differentiation via deleterious extrinsic factors, such as the cytokine IL1-β or ROS. Atrn might be involved in the activation of brain macrophages/microglia by suppressing excessive migration of monocytes into the CNS, or by accelerating the transformation of brain monocytes into resting microglia. Understanding the pathogenesis of the zi/zi rat may provide novel insights into the developmental interaction betweens macrophages/microglia and cells of an oligodendrocyte lineage.
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