Sarcocystis neurona is an apicomplexan parasite that is the primary etiologic agent of equine protozoal myeloencephalitis in horses. Protective immune responses in horses have not been determined, but interferon-γ (IFN-γ) is considered critical for protection from neurologic disease in mice. The role of adaptive and innate immune responses in control of parasites was explored by infecting BALB/c, IFN-γ knockout (GKO), and severe combined immune deficient (SCID) mice with S. neurona (104 sporocysts/mouse). Immune competent BALB/c mice eliminated parasites within 30 days, with no sign of neurologic disease, whereas GKO mice developed fulminant neurologic disease. In contrast, SCID mice remained healthy throughout the experimental period despite the persistence of parasite at low levels in some mice. Treatment with anti–IFN-γ antibody resulted in neurologic disease in infected SCID mice. Although SCID mice lack adaptive immune responses, they have natural killer (NK) cells capable of producing significant quantities of IFN-γ. Therefore, SCID mice were infected with sporocysts of S. neurona and treated with anti-asialo GM1. Depletion of NK cells, confirmed by flow cytometry, did not result in neurologic disease in SCID mice. These results indicate that IFN-γ mediates protection from neurologic disease in SCID mice. Protective levels of IFN-γ may originate from a low number of nondepleted NK cells or from a non-T cell, non-NK cell population.

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