Mol Neurodegener. 2023 Sep 27;18(1):68. doi: 10.1186/s13024-023-00658-9.
BACKGROUND: The optic nerve is an important tissue in glaucoma and the unmyelinated nerve head region remains an important site of many early neurodegenerative changes. In both humans and mice, astrocytes constitute the major glial cell type in the region, and in glaucoma they become reactive, influencing the optic nerve head (ONH) microenvironment and disease outcome. Despite recognizing their importance in the progression of the disease, the reactive response of optic nerve head astrocytes remains poorly understood.
METHODS: To determine the global reactive response of ONH astrocytes in glaucoma we studied their transcriptional response to an elevation in IOP induced by the microbead occlusion model. To specifically isolate astrocyte mRNA in vivo from complex tissues, we used the ribotag method to genetically tag ribosomes in astrocytes, restricting analysis to astrocytes and enabling purification of astrocyte-associated mRNA throughout the entire cell, including the fine processes, for bulk RNA-sequencing. We also assessed the response of astrocytes in the more distal myelinated optic nerve proper (ONP) as glaucomatous changes manifest differently between the two regions.
RESULTS: Astrocytes of the optic nerve exhibited a region-specific and temporally distinct response. Surprisingly, ONH astrocytes showed very few early transcriptional changes and ONP astrocytes demonstrated substantially larger changes over the course of the experimental period. Energy metabolism, particularly oxidative phosphorylation and mitochondrial protein translation emerged as highly upregulated processes in both ONH and ONP astrocytes, with the former showing additional upregulation in antioxidative capacity and proteolysis. Interestingly, optic nerve astrocytes demonstrated a limited neuroinflammatory response, even when challenged with a more severe elevation in IOP. Lastly, there were a greater number of downregulated processes in both astrocyte populations compared to upregulated processes.
CONCLUSION: Our findings demonstrate an essential role for energy metabolism in the response of optic nerve astrocytes to elevated IOP, and contrary to expectations, neuroinflammation had a limited overall role. The transcriptional response profile is supportive of the notion that optic nerve astrocytes have a beneficial role in glaucoma. These previously uncharacterized transcriptional response of optic nerve astrocytes to injury reveal their functional diversity and a greater heterogeneity than previously appreciated.