Activated microglia do not increase 18 kDa translocator protein (TSPO) expression in the multiple sclerosis brain

Erik Nutma, Emeline Gebro, Manuel C. Marzin, Paul van der Valk, Paul M. Matthews, David R. Owen, Sandra Amor

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41 Citations (Scopus)


To monitor innate immune responses in the CNS, the 18 kDa Translocator protein (TSPO) is a frequently used target for PET imaging. The frequent assumption that increased TSPO expression in the human CNS reflects pro-inflammatory activation of microglia has been extrapolated from rodent studies. However, TSPO expression does not increase in activated human microglia in vitro. Studies of multiple sclerosis (MS) lesions reveal that TSPO is not restricted to pro-inflammatory microglia/macrophages, but also present in homeostatic or reparative microglia. Here, we investigated quantitative relationships between TSPO expression and microglia/macrophage phenotypes in white matter and lesions of brains with MS pathology. In white matter from brains with no disease pathology, normal appearing white matter (NAWM), active MS lesions and chronic active lesion rims, over 95% of TSPO+ cells are microglia/macrophages. Homeostatic microglial markers in NAWM and control tissue are lost/reduced in active lesions and chronic active lesion rims, reflecting cell activation. Nevertheless, pixel analysis of TSPO+ cells (n = 12,225) revealed that TSPO expression per cell is no higher in active lesions and chronic active lesion rims (where myeloid cells are activated) relative to NAWM and control. This data suggests that whilst almost all the TSPO signal in active lesions, chronic active lesion rims, NAWM and control is associated with microglia/macrophages, their TSPO expression predominantly reflects cell density and not activation phenotype. This finding has implications for the interpretation of TSPO PET signal in MS and other CNS diseases, and further demonstrates the limitation of extrapolating TSPO biology from rodents to humans.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2447-2458
Number of pages12
Issue number10
Early online date2021
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


  • CD68
  • HLA-DR
  • IBA-1
  • P2ry12
  • TSPO
  • microglia
  • multiple sclerosis

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