Regular exercise maintains arterial endothelial cell homeostasis and protects the arteries from vascular disease, such as peripheral artery disease and atherosclerosis. Autophagy, which is a cellular process that degrades misfolded or aggregate proteins and damaged organelles, plays an important role in maintaining organ and cellular homeostasis. However, it is unknown whether regular exercise stimulates autophagy in aorta endothelial cells of mice prone to atherosclerosis independently of their circulating lipid profile. Here, we observed that 16 weeks of voluntary exercise reduced high-fat diet-induced atherosclerotic plaque formation in the aortic root of ApoE deficient mice, and that this protection occurred without changes in circulating triglycerides, total cholesterol, and lipoproteins. Immunofluorescence analysis indicated that voluntary exercise increased levels of the autophagy protein LC3 in aortic endothelial cells. Interestingly, human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs) exposed to serum from voluntarily exercised mice displayed significantly increased LC3-I and LC3-II protein levels. Analysis of circulating cytokines demonstrated that voluntary exercise caused changes directly relevant to IL-1 signaling (ie, decreased interleukin-1 receptor antagonist [IL-1ra] while also increasing IL-1α). HUVECs exposed to IL-1α and IL-1β recombinant protein significantly increased LC3 mRNA expression, LC3-I and LC3-II protein levels, and autophagy flux. Collectively, these results suggest that regular exercise protects arteries from ApoE deficient mice against atherosclerosis at least in part by stimulating endothelial cell autophagy via enhanced IL-1 signaling.
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