Research Article: Retinal genes are differentially expressed in areas of primary versus secondary degeneration following partial optic nerve injury

Date Published: February 9, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Wissam Chiha, Chrisna J. LeVaillant, Carole A. Bartlett, Alex W. Hewitt, Phillip E. Melton, Melinda Fitzgerald, Alan R. Harvey, Rafael Linden.


Partial transection (PT) of the optic nerve is an established experimental model of secondary degeneration in the central nervous system. After a dorsal transection, retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) with axons in ventral optic nerve are intact but vulnerable to secondary degeneration, whereas RGCs in dorsal retina with dorsal axons are affected by primary and secondary injuries. Using microarray, we quantified gene expression changes in dorsal and ventral retina at 1 and 7 days post PT, to characterize pathogenic pathways linked to primary and secondary degeneration.

In comparison to uninjured retina Cryba1, Cryba2 and Crygs, were significantly downregulated in injured dorsal retina at days 1 and 7. While Ecel1, Timp1, Mt2A and CD74, which are associated with reducing excitotoxicity, oxidative stress and inflammation, were significantly upregulated. Genes associated with oxygen binding pathways, immune responses, cytokine receptor activity and apoptosis were enriched in dorsal retina at day 1 after PT. Oxygen binding and apoptosis remained enriched at day 7, as were pathways involved in extracellular matrix modification. Fewer changes were observed in ventral retina at day 1 after PT, most associated with the regulation of protein homodimerization activity. By day 7, apoptosis, matrix organization and signal transduction pathways were enriched. Discriminant analysis was also performed for specific functional gene groups to compare expression intensities at each time point. Altered expression of selected genes (ATF3, GFAP, Ecel1, TIMP1, Tp53) and proteins (GFAP, ECEL1 and ATF3) were semi-quantitatively assessed by qRT-PCR and immunohistochemistry respectively.

There was an acute and complex primary injury response in dorsal retina indicative of a dynamic interaction between neuroprotective and neurodegenerative events; ventral retina vulnerable to secondary degeneration showed a delayed injury response. Both primary and secondary injury resulted in the upregulation of numerous genes linked to RGC death, but differences in the nature of these changes strongly suggest that death occurred via different molecular mechanisms.

Partial Text

Traumatic injury to the central nervous system (CNS) is the direct damage of brain or spinal cord tissue by a physical insult. Trauma also disrupts the physiological activity of homeostatic systems and auto-regulation of blood flow to intact regions, and triggers diverse inflammatory responses that together create a toxic environment conducive to delayed, secondary degeneration of tissue not initially affected by the trauma. This secondary degeneration results in more widespread pathology and even greater functional loss. Evidence suggests that secondary degeneration is a common factor following trauma to the brain [1] and spinal cord [2], after stroke [3], and in various neurodegenerative diseases including, for example, glaucoma [4].

This study documents the spatial and temporal profile of the retinal transcriptome after partial transection (PT) injury to the adult rat optic nerve, a model for CNS injury. Such injuries trigger a plethora of gene expression changes in the dorsal retina affected by the primary injury that in many cases is different to the response in retinal tissue vulnerable to secondary degeneration. Although molecular changes following optic nerve transection or crush have been described [20, 31–33], this is the first report to provide a comprehensive survey of the expression changes in retinal tissue associated with primary injury versus secondary degeneration, and assessed at different times after the initial trauma. We show that events that lead to secondary degeneration are initially different to primary injury and result in the death of RGCs by mechanisms that are distinct, presumably reflecting different degenerative processes. These differences in molecular response to trauma are likely to account for the protracted period of RGC death consistently seen after PT of the optic nerve [6, 9, 22, 26].




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