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Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is a clinically variable but potentially severe Flavivirus infection, with the outcome strongly dependent on secondary immunopathology. Neutrophils are present in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of TBE patients, but their pathogenetic role remains unknown. In animal models, neutrophils contributed both to the Flavivirus entry into central nervous system (CNS) and to the control of the encephalitis, which we attempted to evaluate in human TBE.
We analyzed records of 240 patients with TBE presenting as meningitis (n = 110), meningoencephalitis (n = 114) or meningoencephalomyelitis (n = 16) assessing CSF neutrophil count on admission and at follow-up 2 weeks later, and their associations with other laboratory and clinical parameters. We measured serum and CSF concentrations of Th17-type cytokines (interleukin-17A, IL-17F, IL-22) and chemokines attracting neutrophils (IL-8, CXCL1, CXCL2) in patients with TBE (n = 36 for IL-8, n = 15 for other), with non-TBE aseptic meningitis (n = 6) and in non-meningitis controls (n = 7), using commercial ELISA assays. The results were analyzed with non-parametric tests with p < 0.05 considered as significant.
On admission, neutrophils were universally present in CSF constituting 25% (median) of total pleocytosis, but on follow-up, they were absent in most of patients (58%) and scarce (< 10%) in 36%. CSF neutrophil count did not correlate with lymphocyte count and blood-brain barrier integrity, did not differ between meningitis and meningoencephalitis, but was higher in meningoencephalomyelitis patients. Prolonged presence of neutrophils in follow-up CSF was associated with encephalitis and neurologic sequelae. All the studied cytokines were expressed intrathecally, with IL-8 having the highest CSF concentration index. Additionally, IL-17A concentration was significantly increased in serum. IL-17F and CXCL1 CSF concentrations correlated with neutrophil count and CXCL1 concentration was higher in patients with encephalitis.
The neutrophil CNS infiltrate does not correlate directly with TBE severity, but is associated with clinical features like myelitis, possibly being involved in its pathogenesis. Th17 cytokine response is present in TBE, especially intrathecally, and contributes to the CNS neutrophilic inflammation. IL-8 and CXCL1 may be chemokines directly responsible for the neutrophil migration.