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Introduction: Sepsis-associated encephalopathy (SAE) is a state of acute brain dysfunction in response to a systemic infection. We propose that systemic inflammation during sepsis causes increased adhesion of leukocytes to the brain microvasculature, resulting in blood-brain barrier dysfunction. Thus, our objectives were to measure inflammatory analytes in plasma of severe sepsis patients to create an experimental cytokine mixture (CM), and to use this CM to investigate the activation and interactions of polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN) and human cerebrovascular endothelial cells (hCMEC/D3) in vitro. Methods: The concentrations of 41 inflammatory analytes were quantified in plasma obtained from 20 severe sepsis patients and 20 age- and sex-matched healthy controls employing an antibody microarray. Two CMs were prepared to mimic severe sepsis (SSCM) and control (CCM), and these CMs were then used for PMN and hCMEC/D3 stimulation in vitro. PMN adhesion to hCMEC/D3 was assessed under conditions of flow (shear stress 0.7 dyn/cm(2)). Results: Eight inflammatory analytes elevated in plasma obtained from severe sepsis patients were used to prepare SSCM and CCM. Stimulation of PMN with SSCM led to a marked increase in PMN adhesion to hCMEC/D3, as compared to CCM. PMN adhesion was abolished with neutralizing antibodies to either beta 2 (CD18), alpha(L)/beta(2) (CD11 alpha/CD18; LFA-1) or alpha(M)/beta(2) (CD11 beta/CD18; Mac-1) integrins. In addition, immune-neutralization of the endothelial (hCMEC/D3) cell adhesion molecule, ICAM-1 (CD54) also suppressed PMN adhesion. Conclusions: Human SSCM up-regulates PMN pro-adhesive phenotype and promotes PMN adhesion to cerebrovascular endothelial cells through a beta 2-integrin-ICAM-1-dependent mechanism. PMN adhesion to the brain microvasculature may contribute to SAE.