Is small vessel disease a disease of the blood brain barrier?
Rajani, Rikesh Mukesh
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Cerebral small vessel disease (SVD) is a vascular neurodegenerative disease which is the leading cause of vascular dementia and causes 20% of strokes. 20-30% of those over 80 show signs of the disease as white matter hyperintensities on MRI scans, doubling their risk of stroke and trebling their risk of dementia. Sporadic SVD is thought to be caused by hypertension but 30% of sufferers are normotensive and an alternative hypothesis implicates loss of integrity of the blood brain barrier (BBB). To investigate this, I studied brains from normotensive people with early stage SVD and found reduced capillary endothelial claudin-5 (a BBB tight junction protein), more oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs; the precursors to myelinating oligodendrocytes), and more microglia/macrophages compared to controls. Furthermore, in a relevant rat model of spontaneous SVD, the Stroke Prone Spontaneously Hypertensive Rat (SHRSP; disease model; DM) I found that reduced endothelial claudin-5 was the earliest change, appearing at 3 weeks of age, followed by OPC proliferation, appearing at 4 weeks, and then increased number of microglia/macrophages, appearing at 5 weeks. Importantly, all these changes occurred at a young age (< 5 weeks), before any measurable hypertension. These changes were confirmed in an ex vivo slice culture model (i.e. removing blood flow), ruling out direct damage by leakage of blood components through an impaired BBB and suggesting an inherent endothelial cell dysfunction as the primary cause, with secondary BBB defects. This hypothesis of endothelial dysfunction is supported by increased endothelial cell proliferation in both human SVD tissue and the DM rats, and lower levels of endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS) in brains of DM rats. To study this further I isolated primary brain microvascular endothelial cells (BMECs) from DM and control rats and found that those from DM rats formed less mature tight junctions (less membranous claudin-5) than control BMECs. I also found that conditioned media (CM) from DM BMECs causes OPCs in culture to proliferate more and mature less. This indicates that the endothelial dysfunction is inherent to the endothelial cells, rather than induced by other cell types, and through secreted factors causes OPC changes mirroring what is seen in vivo. Using an antibody array, I identified HSP90α as a candidate secreted factor and showed that it is necessary (by blocking the protein in CM) and sufficient (by adding recombinant HSP90α) to induce the maturation phenotype in OPCs, but not the proliferation phenotype. The idea that endothelial dysfunction causes SVD begs the question of what causes endothelial dysfunction, especially in our inbred DM rat strain. To establish this, I reanalysed sequencing data of the DM and control rats from a previously published study, searching for mutations which lead to truncated proteins in genes expressed in brain endothelial cells. We confirmed the candidate gene Atp11b, a phospholipid flippase, was mutated as predicted. I found that knocking down Atp11b using siRNA in a control endothelial cell line caused endothelial dysfunction and a loss of tight junction maturity, and that CM from these cells causes OPCs to proliferate more and mature less, mirroring what we see in primary DM BMECs and suggesting that Atp11b has a key function in promoting normal endothelial function. Furthermore, I showed that knocking down Atp11b causes cells to secrete increased levels of HSP90α. I propose a mechanism whereby ATP11B regulates the retention of HSP90α within endothelial cells, which in turns regulates eNOS levels and activity, as has been shown previously. In summary, this work shows that there are many pre-symptomatic changes which occur in the brain in the development of SVD in DM rats, and that these are ultimately caused by endothelial dysfunction. As these changes are similar to those found in spontaneous human SVD, I propose that endothelial dysfunction is a key mechanism of human SVD, which may in the future lead to new therapies.