Axon-glia synapses are highly vulnerable to white matter injury in the developing brain

Yan Shen, Xiao Bo Liu, David E Pleasure, Wenbin Deng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


The biology of cerebral white matter injury has been woefully understudied, in part because of the difficulty of reliably modeling this type of injury in rodents. Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) is the predominant form of brain injury and the most common cause of cerebral palsy in premature infants. PVL is characterized by predominant white matter injury. No specific therapy for PVL is presently available, because the pathogenesis is not well understood. Here we report that two types of mouse PVL models have been created by hypoxia-ischemia with or without systemic coadministration of lipopolysaccharide (LPS). LPS coadministration exacerbated hypoxic-ischemic white matter injury and led to enhanced microglial activation and astrogliosis. Drug trials with the antiinflammatory agent minocycline, the antiexcitotoxic agent NBQX, and the antioxidant agent edaravone showed various degrees of protection in the two models, indicating that excitotoxic, oxidative, and inflammatory forms of injury are involved in the pathogenesis of injury to immature white matter. We then applied immunoelectron microscopy to reveal fine structural changes in the injured white matter and found that synapses between axons and oligodendroglial precursor cells (OPCs) are quickly and profoundly damaged. Hypoxia-ischemia caused a drastic decrease in the number of postsynaptic densities associated with the glutamatergic axon-OPC synapses defined by the expression of vesicular glutamate transporters, vGluT1 and vGluT2, on axon terminals that formed contacts with OPCs in the periventricular white matter, resulted in selective shrinkage of the postsynaptic OPCs contacted by vGluT2 labeled synapses, and led to excitotoxicity mediated by GluR2-lacking, Ca 2+-permeable AMPA receptors. Overall, the present study provides novel mechanistic insights into the pathogenesis of PVL and reveals that axon-glia synapses are highly vulnerable to white matter injury in the developing brain. More broadly, the study of white matter development and injury has general implications for a variety of neurological diseases, including PVL, stroke, spinal cord injury, and multiple sclerosis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)105-121
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Neuroscience Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Axon-glia synapse
  • Hypoxia-ischemia
  • Lipopolysaccharide
  • Oligodendrocyte
  • Periventricular leukomalacia
  • White matter injury

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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