Background: Among Alzheimer’s disease (AD) brain hallmarks, the presence of reactive astrocytes was demonstrated to correlate with neuronal loss and cognitive deficits. Evidence indeed supports the role of reactive astrocytes as mediators of changes in neurons, including synapses. However, the complexity and the outcomes of astrocyte reactivity are far from being completely elucidated.
Another key role in AD pathogenesis is played by alterations in brain cholesterol metabolism. Oxysterols (cholesterol oxidation products) are crucial for brain cholesterol homeostasis, and we previously demonstrated that changes in the brain levels of various oxysterols correlate with AD progression. Moreover, oxysterols have been shown to contribute to various pathological mechanisms involved in AD pathogenesis.
In order to deepen the role of oxysterols in AD, we investigated whether they could contribute to astrocyte reactivity, and consequently impact on neuronal health.
Methods: Mouse primary astrocyte cultures were used to test the effect of two oxysterol mixtures, that represent the oxysterol composition respectively of mild or severe AD brains, on astrocyte morphology, markers of reactivity, and secretion profile. Co-culture experiments were performed to investigate the impact of oxysterol-treated astrocytes on neurons. Neuronal cultures were exposed to astrocyte conditioned media (ACM) deprived of lipocalin-2 (Lcn2) to investigate the contribution of this mediator to synaptotoxicity.
Results: Results showed that oxysterols induce a clear morphological change in astrocytes, accompanied by the upregulation of some reactive astrocyte markers, including Lcn2. Moreover, ACM analysis revealed a significant increase in the release of Lcn2, cytokines, and chemokines in response to oxysterols. A significant reduction of postsynaptic density protein 95 (PSD95) and a concurrent increase in cleaved caspase-3 protein levels have been demonstrated in neurons co-cultured with oxysterol-treated astrocytes, pointing out that mediators released by astrocytes have an impact on neurons. Among these mediators, Lcn2 has been demonstrated to play a major role on synapses, affecting neurite morphology and decreasing dendritic spine density.
Conclusions: These data demonstrated that oxysterols present in the AD brain promote astrocyte reactivity, determining the release of several mediators that affect neuronal health and synapses. Lcn2 has been shown to exert a key role in mediating the synaptotoxic effect of oxysterol-treated astrocytes.