Insulin resistance increases cardiovascular disease

Insulin resistance (IR), resistance of the insulin receptor due to overstimulation, elicits a rise of insulin levels to overcome the reduced receptor sensitivity. The resulting elevated insulin levels damage tissues throughout the body, and are a major contributing cause of cardiovascular disease. This is well known to many practitioners, so it was disturbing to read an article in the New York Times describing endocrinologists who are baffled by the fact that medications for type 2 diabetes that increase insulin levels worsen the risk for cardiovascular disease. The wealth of scientific evidence has been accumulating for a long time.

Insulin resistance and coronary artery disease

Insulin resistance and CADA study published in 1996 in the journal Diabetologia described the strong connection between CAD (coronary artery disease) and insulin resistance with its consequent hyperinsulinemia.

“The purpose of the present study was to quantitate insulin-mediated glucose disposal in normal glucose tolerant patients with angiographically documented coronary artery disease (CAD) and to define the pathways responsible for the insulin resistance.”

Of particular interest is that all the study subjects, both those with CAD and controls, had a normal oral glucose tolerance test. HOWEVER…

Fasting plasma insulin concentration and area under the plasma insulin curve following glucose ingestion were increased in CAD vs control subjects. Insulin-mediated whole body glucose disposal was significantly decreased in CAD subjects and this was entirely due to diminished non-oxidative glucose disposal. The magnitude of insulin resistance was positively correlated with the severity of CAD.”

It is hard to over emphasize the importance to clinicians of being vigilant in recognizing insulin resistance in the presence of normal glucose levels.

“In the CAD subjects basal and insulin-mediated rates of glucose and lipid oxidation were normal and insulin caused a normal suppression of hepatic glucose production. In conclusion, subjects with angiographically documented CAD are characterized by moderate-severe insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia and should be included in the metabolic and cardiovascular cluster of disorders that comprise the insulin resistance syndrome or ’syndrome X’.

Hypertension, Dyslipidemia, and Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease

In 1991 a paper published in Diabetes Care described how insulin resistance promotes multiple factors that cause atherosclerosis.

“Diabetes mellitus is commonly associated with systolic/diastolic hypertension, and a wealth of epidemiological data suggest that this association is independent of age and obesity. Much evidence indicates that the link between diabetes and essential hypertension is hyperinsulinemia. Thus, when hypertensive patients, whether obese or of normal body weight, are compared with age- and weight-matched normotensive control subjects, a heightened plasma insulin response to a glucose challenge is consistently found.”


“…insulin resistance…correlates directly with the severity of hypertension. The reasons for the association of insulin resistance and essential hypertension can be sought in at least four general types of mechanisms: Na+ retention, sympathetic nervous system overactivity, disturbed membrane ion transport, and proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cells.”

It is also well-known that IR with its hyperinsulinemia cause elevated lipid levels.

Insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia are also associated with an atherogenic plasma lipid profile. Elevated plasma insulin concentrations enhance very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) synthesis, leading to hypertriglyceridemia. Progressive elimination of lipid and apolipoproteins from the VLDL particle leads to an increased formation of intermediate-density and low-density lipoproteins, both of which are atherogenic.”

And elevated insulin directly fosters atherosclerosis:

“Last, insulin, independent of its effects on blood pressure and plasma lipids, is known to be atherogenic. The hormone enhances cholesterol transport into arteriolar smooth muscle cells and increases endogenous lipid synthesis by these cells. Insulin also stimulates the proliferation of arteriolar smooth muscle cells, augments collagen synthesis in the vascular wall, increases the formation of and decreases the regression of lipid plaques, and stimulates the production of various growth factors. In summary, insulin resistance appears to be a syndrome that is associated with a clustering of metabolic disorders, including non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, obesity, hypertension, lipid abnormalities, and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.”


Controlling insulin resistance more important than glucose or LDLA more recent study in Diabetes Care presents striking data demonstrating the massive impact reduction in heart attacks that would occur by preventing insulin resistance. In setting out to determine what portion of coronary artery disease is caused by IR, the authors used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1998–2004 to simulate a population representative of young adults in the U.S. They applied the Archimedes model was to estimate the proportion of heart attacks that would be prevented by maintaining insulin resistance at healthy levels. Their data painted a dramatic picture:

“In young adults, preventing insulin resistance would prevent ∼42% of myocardial infarctions. The next most important determinant of CAD is systolic hypertension, prevention of which would reduce myocardial infarctions by ∼36%. Following systolic blood pressure, the most important determinants are HDL cholesterol (31%), BMI (21%), LDL cholesterol (16%), triglycerides (10%), fasting plasma glucose and smoking (both ∼9%), and family history (4%).”

Preventing insulin resistance beat the pants off controlling LDL cholesterol and smoking! Interestingly, they found that the effects were especially important for women:

“The effects of insulin resistance are also affected by sex. Today’s young men face a higher rate of myocardial infarctions than today’s young women: 55 vs. 32%. However, insulin resistance plays a larger relative role in women than in men, with normalization of insulin resistance reducing the myocardial infarction rate ∼57% for women (from 32 to 14%), compared with ∼29% (from 55 to 39%) for men.”

Preventing insulin resistance carries more weight than controlling glucose

In their conclusion the authors make points that are crucial for clinicians to bear in mind:

“Of the risk factors that we believe are sufficiently well studied to permit quantitative analysis, insulin resistance is the most important single risk factor for CAD. Our results indicate that insulin resistance is responsible for approximately 42% of myocardial infarctions. Its effect on CAD is indirect, mediated through its effects on other variables such as SBP, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, and apoB.”

Effect of insulin resistance on myocardial infarction

In comparing their results with other research, the authors highlight the critical error made by depending on medications that increase insulin to control glucose:

“Our results are not directly comparable with those of clinical trials, where the effects of glucose lowering on CAD were either much smaller or null. The reason is that in the clinical trials, the focus was on lowering blood glucose—not preventing or curing insulin resistance. The drugs used in the trials either lowered glucose without affecting insulin resistance (e.g., sulfonylureas and insulin) or lowered insulin resistance to some extent but did not eliminate it (e.g., metformin and rosiglitazone). Furthermore, we normalized insulin resistance over the entire lifetimes of the subjects, whereas the treatments in the trials were given only after individuals had developed diabetes and were given only for the limited durations of the studies. Thus, the results of the trials do not represent the full eff

ect of normalizing insulin resistance and are actually consistent with our results.”

Note the implication that cardiovascular damage by IR occurs long before losing glucose control and crossing the border into diabetes territory.

Insulin resistance without diabetes causes cardiovascular disease

Investigators publishing in PLoS One make the same point about cardiovascular damage caused by IR well before diabetes sets in.

“To enable a comparison between cardiovascular disease risks for glucose, insulin and HOMA-IR, we calculated pooled relative risks per increase of one standard deviation…We included 65 studies (involving 516,325 participants) in this meta-analysis. In a random-effect meta-analysis the pooled relative risk of CHD (95% CI; I2) comparing high to low concentrations was 1.52 (1.31, 1.76; 62.4%) for glucose, 1.12 (0.92, 1.37; 41.0%) for insulin and 1.64 (1.35, 2.00; 0%) for HOMA-IR. The pooled relative risk of CHD per one standard deviation increase was 1.21 (1.13, 1.30; 64.9%) for glucose, 1.04 (0.96, 1.12; 43.0%) for insulin and 1.46 (1.26, 1.69; 0.0%) for HOMA-IR.”

They concluded that insulin resistance (HOMA-IR) was the leading culprit:

“The relative risk of cardiovascular disease was higher for an increase of one standard deviation in HOMA-IR compared to an increase of one standard deviation in fasting glucose or fasting insulin concentration.”

The authors also demonstrate that IR is a much better biomarker than fasting insulin:

 “The present meta-analyses showed that fasting glucose, fasting insulin and HOMA-IR were all associated with incident cardiovascular disease in individuals without diabetes. In a standardized meta-analysis we found that coronary heart disease risk increased with 46% for an increase of one standard deviation in HOMA-IR concentration compared to an increase of 21% for fasting glucose concentration and an increase of 4% for fasting insulin concentration.”

Insulin resistance causes fat expansion and vascular endothelial damage

An excellent paper published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology details how IR causes cardiovascular disease beyond abnormal glucose, lipids, hypertension, and its proinflammatory effects.

“…insulin’s action directly on vascular endothelium, atherosclerotic plaque macrophages, and in the heart, kidney, and retina has now been described, and impaired insulin signaling in these locations can alter progression of cardiovascular disease in the metabolic syndrome and affect development of microvascular complications.”

The authors describe how IR causes vascular inflammation and atherosclerosis:

“Insulin action directly on vascular endothelial cells affects endothelial function beyond regulating blood flow or capillary recruitment. Conditional knockout of the insulin receptor in endothelial cells causes a 2- to 3-fold increase in the atherosclerotic lesion size in apolipoprotein E–null mice…the increased atherogenesis in this model can be attributed to insulin action directly on endothelial cells rather than effects mediated through systemic parameters. The accelerated atherosclerosis in mice with endothelial cell insulin receptor knockout is preceded by a dramatic increase in leukocyte rolling and adhesion to endothelium and an increase in expression of vascular cell adhesion molecule-1…insulin signaling independent of NO is responsible for this effect.”

They state that IR promotes the necrotic core at the heart of vulnerable plaque:

Insulin resistance in macrophages, however, promotes formation of a necrotic core in atherosclerotic plaques by enhancing macrophage apoptosis. This is an important event in advanced atherosclerosis because exposure of the necrotic core to circulating blood in the event of plaque rupture can precipitate thrombosis, leading to unstable angina pectoris, transitory cerebral ischemia, stroke, or myocardial infarction.”

Regarding cardiomyocyte function…

“…it is likely that the changes in metabolic substrate inflexibility and increased mitochondrial production of oxidants caused by cardiomyocyte insulin resistance can contribute to development of heart failure in the metabolic syndrome.”

The authors conclude with important clinical points:

“Research on insulin receptor signaling using tissue–specific gene manipulation in mice as well as other methods has provided important insights into insulin action and revealed insulin effects in tissues that a decade or 2 ago were considered nonresponsive to insulin….insulin sensitizers would theoretically have better profiles of action if they improved insulin resistance in tissues regulating glucose and lipid metabolism, as well as in the endothelium and other vascular tissues where impaired insulin signaling is proatherosclerotic independent of metabolic effects. Second, insulin analogues should be carefully evaluated for deleterious effects on insulin signaling pathways which are not affected by insulin resistance, such as those pathways which promote dyslipidemia or increase vascular expression of endothelin-1.”

Insulin resistance promotes advanced plaque progression

A paper published in Cell Metabolism details additional mechanisms by which IR promotes atherosclerosis. The authors note that…

“…the pathophysiological processes involved in the initiation and progression of early lesions are quite different from those that cause the formation of clinically dangerous plaques,…advanced plaque progression is influenced primarily by processes that promote plaque necrosis and thinning of a collagenous “scar” overlying the lesion called the fibrous cap… and distinguishing the effects of insulin resistance and hyperglycemia on these processes is critically important.”

They echo other investigators who point out the crucial fact that insulin resistance does damage before glucose control is lost:

“There is ample clinical evidence that insulin resistance increases the risk for coronary artery disease (CAD) even in the absence of hyperglycemia. Insulin resistance syndromes can promote both atherogenesis and advanced plaque progression, and the mechanisms likely involve both systemic factors that promote these processes, particularly dyslipidemia but also hypertension and a proinflammatory state, as well as the effect of perturbed insulin signaling at the level of the intimal cells that participate in atherosclerosis, including endothelial cells, vascular smooth muscle cells, and macrophages.”

They highlight the critical clinical implication that insulin resistance also entails overstimulation of various tissues by insulin elevated in compensation for receptor resistance or by insulin-elevating medications:

“…“insulin resistance” can mean either defective insulin receptor signaling or, ironically, overstimulation of insulin receptor pathways caused by hyperinsulinemia.”

They also note the difference between ‘ordinary’ atherosclerosis and the lesions, vulnerable plaque, that actually cause heart attacks and ischemic strokes.

“Most importantly, the primary objective of this study was to address an entirely different question, namely, the effect of myeloid IR deficiency on advanced lesional macrophage apoptosis and plaque necrosis. Recall that most atherosclerotic lesions in humans do not cause acute coronary artery disease, because they undergo outward remodeling of the arterial wall, which preserves lumen patency, and do not undergo plaque rupture or erosion and thus do not trigger acute lumenal thrombosis. The small percentage of lesions that do cause acute vascular disease are distinguished by the presence of large areas of necrosis and thin fibrous caps, which promote plaque disruption, acute lumenal thrombosis, and tissue infarction. This concept is particularly important for the topic of this review, because advanced atherosclerotic lesions in diabetic subjects are characterized by large necrotic cores when compared with similarly sized lesions from nondiabetic individuals”

In their conclusion the authors state the role of insulin resistance over hyperglycemia:

“These studies have provided evidence that insulin resistance in macrophages and endothelial cells may play important roles in both atherogenesis and clinically relevant advanced plaque progression. Hyperglycemia, on the other hand, appears to primarily promote early stages of lesion formation…”

Insulin resistance inhibits nitric oxide synthase

An interesting paper published in the Italian journal Panminerva Medica further elucidates key mechanisms, including the damage by IR to nitric oxide regulation done by increasing asymmetric dimethylarginine, which inhibits nitric oxide synthase. The author includes this under the rubric ‘insulin resistance syndrome’.

“…the more insulin resistant an individual, the more insulin they must secrete in order to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes. However, the combination of insulin resistance and compensatory hyperinsulinemia increases the likelihood that an individual will be hypertensive, and have a dyslipidemia characterized by a high plasma triglyceride (TG) and low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) concentration….Several other clinical syndromes are now known to be associated with insulin resistance and compensatory hyperinsulinemia. For example, polycystic ovary syndrome appears to be secondary to insulin resistance and compensatory hyperinsulinemia. More recently, studies have shown that the prevalence of insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia is increased in patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and there are reports that certain forms of cancer are more likely to occur in insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic persons. Finally, there is substantial evidence of an association between insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia, and sleep disordered breathing. Given the rapid increase in the number of clinical syndromes and abnormalities associated with insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia, it seems reasonable to suggest that the cluster of these changes related to the defect in insulin action be subsumed under the term of the insulin resistance syndrome.”

Specifically in regard to cardiovascular disease…

“…in addition to a high TG and a low HDL-C, the atherogenic lipoprotein profile in insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic individuals also includes the appearance of smaller and denser low density lipoprotein particles, and the enhanced postprandial accumulation of remnant lipoproteins; changes identified as increasing risk of CVD. Elevated plasma concentrations of plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1) have been shown to be associated with increased CVD, and there is evidence of a significant relationship between PAI-1 and fibrinogen levels and both insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia. Evidence is also accumulating that sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity is increased in insulin resistant, hyperinsulinemic individuals, and, along with the salt sensitivity associated with insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia, increases the likelihood that these individuals will develop essential hypertension.”


“The first step in the process of atherogenesis is the binding of mononuclear cells to the endothelium, and mononuclear cells isolated from insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic individuals adhere with greater avidity. This process is modulated by adhesion molecules produced by endothelial cells, and there is a significant relationship between degree of insulin resistance and the plasma concentration of the several of these adhesion molecules. Further evidence of the relationship between insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction is the finding that asymmetric dimethylarginine, an endogenous inhibitor of the enzyme nitric oxide synthase, is increased in insulin resistant/hyperinsulinemic individuals. Finally, plasma concentrations of several inflammatory markers are elevated in insulin resistant subjects.”


A paper published in Diabetes Metabolism Research and Reviews draws this point further.

“In recent years, it has become clear that insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction play a central role in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. Much evidence supports the presence of insulin resistance as the fundamental pathophysiologic disturbance responsible for the cluster of metabolic and cardiovascular disorders, known collectively as the metabolic syndrome. Endothelial dysfunction is an important component of the metabolic or insulin resistance syndrome and this is demonstrated by inadequate vasodilation and/or paradoxical vasoconstriction in coronary and peripheral arteries in response to stimuli that release nitric oxide (NO). Deficiency of endothelial-derived NO is believed to be the primary defect that links insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction. NO deficiency results from decreased synthesis and/or release, in combination with exaggerated consumption in tissues by high levels of reactive oxygen (ROS) and nitrogen (RNS) species, which are produced by cellular disturbances in glucose and lipid metabolism.”

And a vicious cycle ensues…

“Endothelial dysfunction contributes to impaired insulin action, by altering the transcapillary passage of insulin to target tissues. Reduced expansion of the capillary network, with attenuation of microcirculatory blood flow to metabolically active tissues, contributes to the impairment of insulin-stimulated glucose and lipid metabolism. This establishes a reverberating negative feedback cycle in which progressive endothelial dysfunction and disturbances in glucose and lipid metabolism develop secondary to the insulin resistance. Vascular damage, which results from lipid deposition and oxidative stress to the vessel wall, triggers an inflammatory reaction, and the release of chemoattractants and cytokines worsens the insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction.”

In their conclusion the authors state:

“…endothelial dysfunction and insulin resistance commonly occur together and can be detected early in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. Insulin resistance can be inferred by the presence of a cluster of metabolic and cardiovascular abnormalities known collectively as the metabolic syndrome or by direct measurement of impaired insulin-stimulated glucose and lipid metabolism . Endothelial dysfunction can be documented by the demonstration of inadequate vasodilation and/or paradoxical vasoconstriction in coronary and peripheral arteries. Lack of endothelial-derived NO may provide the link between insulin resistance and endothelial dysfunction.”

Plea to clinicians

Many resources are available for practitioners to apply a functional medicine model of objectively targeted treatment to resuscitate insulin receptor function and address lifestyle issues, especially diet, for the management of type 2 diabetes that minimizes the use of agents that lower glucose by increasing insulin, and therefore insulin resistance. It is my sincere wish that not only endocrinologists, but all clinicians, recall the mechanisms by which medications that promote insulin resistance increase cardiovascular disease, and act accordingly to protect their patients.

Insulin resistance is a huge topic, and there are numerous posts here pertaining to IR an conditions as diverse as Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer that can be viewed by using the search box. They include the earlier post on the correlation of IR with blood vessel damage leading to heart attack and stroke.

Fracture healing requires intact nitric oxide production

BoneFracture healing gone awry can result in delayed or nonunion with significant morbidity. Useful research just published in the journal Bone shows that reduced nitric oxide production impairs fracture healing. The authors note:

“Between 5% and 10% of all fractures fail to heal adequately resulting in nonunion of the fracture fragments. This can significantly decrease a patient’s quality of life and create associated psychosocial and socio-economic problems.”

Nitric oxide synthase and fracture healing

Nitric oxide is known to be crucial for respiration, cardiovascular health, immune health and numerous other functions, and known to be involved in fracture healing. The authors take this a step further:

“Nitric oxide (NO) and nitric oxide synthases (NOS) have been found to be involved in fracture healing, but until now it is not known if disturbances in these mechanisms play a role in nonunion and delayed union development. In this study, we explored the role of endothelial and inducible NOS deficiency in a delayed union model in mice.”

They used femur osteotomy with periosteal damage for their model of fracture to observe the healing response in both normal (‘wild’) and NOS knockout (Nos2−/− and Nos3−/−) mice ‘engineered’ to not produce nitric oxide synthase and generate nitric oxide. Fracture healing completely stalled in the latter:

“With μCT [micro-computed tomography], delayed union was observed in wild type animals, whereas in both Nos2−/− and Nos3−/− mice nonunion development was evident. Both knock-out strains also showed a significantly increased influx of MPO [myeloperoxidase] when compared with wild type mice. Concentrations of amino acids and expression of enzymes related to the arginine-NO metabolism were aberrant in NOS deficient mice when compared to contralateral control femurs and wild type samples.”

Clinical note

Testing and for nitric oxide sufficiency and replenishment in the context of impaired NOS function is now very practical (see Neogenis Medical in Useful Links) and should be standard of care in fracture management, especially when there is a history of hypertension or other cardiovascular disorders. The authors conclude:

“In the present study we show for the first time that the absence of nitric oxide synthases results in a disturbed arginine-NO metabolism and inadequate fracture healing with the transition of delayed union into a nonunion in mice after a femur osteotomy. Based on these data we suggest that the arginine-NO metabolism may play a role in the prevention of delayed unions and nonunions.”

Systemic inflammation drives brain neurodegeneration

Frontiers in Cellular NeuroscienceIn a richly valuable paper published recently in Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience the authors describe the ways in which systemic inflammation causes neurodegeneration in the brain associated with cognitive decline and a host of neuropsychiatric disorders. In the short term this manifests the anorexia, malaise, depression, and decreased physical activity known as sickness behavior (SB) that occurs with inflammation due to infection. Permanent cognitive and behavioral changes due to neurodegeneration occur when inflammation is chronic. Discerning and targeting the causes of inflammation offers opportunities for treatment.

Neuroimmune modulation

The nervous system senses inflammation directly and can exert control through the vagus nerve:

“The efferent axis of neuroimmune control is better understood after the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway (CAP), a cholinergic reflex system that regulates inflammation via the vagus nerve that stimulates the splenic nerve to release noradrenaline. Noradrenaline in turn stimulates a subset of acetylcholine (ACh)-producing splenic T-cells (CD4+CD44hiCD62Llo) to release ACh, which binds to α7 nicotinic receptors on the surface of macrophages, resulting in down-regulation of TNF by blocking the nuclear translocation of nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB). Thus far, this is a unique scenario in which an immune cell acts as interneuron in a reflex system. Electrical as well as chemical stimulation of the CAP have been shown to decrease the inflammatory burden and increase survival of experimental sepsis.”

The a cholinergic response expressed through the vagus nerve can wind down inflammation and protect against neurodegeneration.

Sickness behavior

Transient inflammation, such as associated with a cold or flu, produces behavioral symptoms of the same character as those which persist with the chronic systemic inflammation that can drive neurodegeneration.

“The acute effects of systemic inflammation upon cognition and behavior are not limited to the elderly or the critically ill. As we have witnessed in ourselves and those near us, even a minor and self-limited common cold induces a transient syndrome known as sickness behavior (SB) marked by fatigue, depression, lack of drive, malaise, sleep disturbances, decreased physical activity, and social interactions, as well as cognitive impairment. Healthy volunteers develop anxiety, depression, and memory impairment in response to a low dose of lipopolysaccharide (LPS), and the development of such clinical scenario correlates with TNF secretion.”

And patients with chronic infections such as tuberculosis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B virus (HVB), and hepatitis C virus (HCV) can have cognitive and behavioral problems due to the persistent inflammatory response.

“This supports the role of large loads of inflammatory cytokines in inducing and sustaining brain dysfunction. Experimentally, NADPH oxidative activity and nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) are induced in the brain shortly after systemic inflammation, potentially leading to NMDA-dependent neurotoxicity”

Sepsis and severe trauma

An overwhelming load of pathogens or severe trauma can unleash an immune inflammatory response that results in neurodegeneration.

“Under normal conditions, inflammation is a well-orchestrated response with constant fine-tuning. Once microorganisms have breached the skin and mucosal barriers, innate immunity is critical in preventing further invasion by launching inflammation. After the infection source has been cleared, the inflammatory response also plays an important role in tissue repair and functional healing. When the source of damage has been controlled, the same mechanisms that initiated and regulated inflammation will dampen the response. Large loads of pathogens, or infection by highly virulent pathogens, can trigger an en-masse systemic response that leads to sepsis and multiple organ failure…The nervous system is particularly vulnerable to damage in response to systemic inflammation.”

Brain milieu changes in response to systemic inflammation

Brain milieu changes in response to systemic inflammation

Inflammation-induced infiltration of immune cells and mediators into the brain leads to profound structural and functional changes. As a consequence, up to 81% of septic patients develop sepsis-associated delirium (SAD), with elderly patients being at particularly high risk. In the elderly, severe sepsis is sufficient to trigger new cognitive decline of sufficient importance as to profoundly interfere with quality of life…Neonatal sepsis is also marked by abnormalities of the white matter (66% of infants in one cohort), and white matter lesions correlate to poorer mental and psychomotor development at 2 years.


“…clearing the trigger of sepsis does not prevent the appearance of persistent brain damage…in a model of endotoxemia in aged rats, a single systemic injection of LPS induced brain inflammation that lasted for at least 30 days…This suggests that even transient bouts of systemic inflammation of only limited significance can cause sustained brain damage.”

Traumatic inflammation also promotes neurodegeneration:

“Severe trauma, as well as surgery can lead to large loads of endogenous pro-inflammatory molecules (damage-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) being released. A few DAMPs have been shown to induce brain dysfunction in vivo. Of those, TNF and IL-1 can mediate long-standing cognitive and behavioral changes and, in experimental settings, interfering with the effect of TNF reduces the effect of trauma in the formation of contextual memory.”

In this context antioxidants can have neuroprotective effects.

“Experimentally, preemptive administration of the free radical scavenger endarvone before sepsis induction resulted in reduced neuronal damage and blood–brain barrier (BBB) permeability. Administration of the antioxidants N-acetylcysteine and deferoxamine shortly after murine sepsis induction has shown long-term neuroprotective effects.”

Systemic inflammation disrupts brain networks

Human brain connectome

The human brain connectome

The brain is characterized as a ‘small-world’ network with two levels of connection that are susceptible to disruption by inflammation.

“Biological systems, such as the neuronal network of the human brain have “small-world” properties. Small-world networks have two levels of organization. On the local level, groups of neurons specialized in a specific task form functional modules with high short intramodular connectivity. On the global level, different modules are connected through long intermodular connections. The advantage of the latter type of connections is enhanced computational efficiency through parallel processing of information. Anatomically, long intermodular connections are formed by axonal fiber tracts in the white matter. Long fibers are characterized by high energetic “wiring costs”. To provide the energy for the maintenance of these long fibers the brain is relying on a constant energy supply. Recent findings have elegantly identified oligodendrocyte-derived lactate as the main energetic substrates for axonal maintenance. Consistently, disruption of this oligodendrocyte-neuronal metabolic coupling triggered neurodegeneration. Systemic inflammation poses dramatic challenges to the energetic supply of the brain.”

The brain requires a constant stream of nutrients to maintain its ‘wiring’

Autoimmune driven neuroinflammation, among other insults, can disrupt the delivery of nutrients to neurons and contribute to mitochondrial dysfunction.

“To cover its wiring costs the brain is highly reliant on a constant nutrient supply. Nutrient supply through blood vessels can be compromised through vascular pathologies associated with systemic inflammation…Autoimmune disorders have a chronic course of vascular pathology with acute flares. The most common vascular pathology is the autoantibody-associated antiphospholipid syndrome. Patients with antiphospholipid syndrome display cognitive deficits. MRI studies found diffuse infarctions and white matter lesions in these patients…In line with the concept of high “wiring costs” imposed on the brain by long intermodular connections,Hans Lassmann argues that inflammation in MS causes mitochondrial damage and inability of the brain to maintain neuronal processes. The source of mitochondrial damage is radicals formed as a consequence of inflammation in MS.”

Energy crisis for the brain

Systemic inflammation damages connectivity and fuels mitochondrial dysfunction…

“Taken together these findings indicate that systemic inflammation leads to an energy crisis of the brain that reduces its connectivity. Oxidative stress might be the main mediator of this pathology. Thus, inflammation-induced changes in the brain resemble hallmarks of the aged brain where oxidative damage leads to decreased expression of genes associated with synaptic plasticity and increased expression of stress-response genes. Likewise, the brain during systemic inflammation shows hallmarks of neurodegenerative diseases where oxidative stress and mitochondrial damage have consistently been found.”

Balancing act

Normally astrocytes and neurons talk to each other to keep activation of brain immune cells in check. But this can get out of hand in response to a pathogen resulting in serious damage. Balance is maintained, partly by accepting a certain degree of tolerance for pathogens:

“Brain-resident microglia and peripheral immune cells maintain immune surveillance of brain parenchyma, CSF, and perivascular space for infectious agents or damage-associated milieu changes. In the case of brain infection, complete eradication of some invading pathogens can only be achieved at the cost of irreparable damage to brain tissue. To prevent such damage, the immune system has established active mechanisms of pathogen tolerance. Examples for coexistence-prone pathogens are herpes simplex virus type I or Cryptococcus gattii. A growing body of evidence indicates that not only immune tolerance but also resolution of neuroinflammation is a tightly regulated active immunological process. Taken together, anti-inflammatory brain milieu, pathogen tolerance, and resolution of neuroinflammation require a balanced action between different branches of the immune system.”

Dysregulation causing systemic inflammation drives neurodegeneration

There are a number of mechanisms by which dysregulated systemic inflammation promotes neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. These in include activation of apoptosis through the inflammasome (inflammation signalling chains):

Apoptosis is one of the main drivers of neurodegeneration. Apoptosis and cell death constantly occur under physiological conditions throughout the human body and cell debris is cleared by immune cells mostly without induction of chronic inflammation. However, during systemic inflammation, apoptosis of stressed cells might further exacerbate the underlying pathology. Activators of apoptosis lead to direct or indirect activation of caspases…inflammatory caspases are crucial for the activation of the innate immune system through the inflammasome…Activation of the innate immune system through the inflammasome is a driver of pathology in age-associated and autoimmune neurodegenerative disorders…these finding show an intricate relationship between inflammation and activation of apoptosis”

Microvesicles (MVs) packed with inflammatory messengers are secreted by peripheral and brain immune cells contribute to neurodegeneration:

“Cellular components of innate immunity can pack and secrete inflammatory messengers in microvesicles (MVs). Peripheral macrophages, as well as brain microglia can secrete inflammasome components (caspase-1, IL-1β, and IL-18) in MVs, and the presence of extravesicular inflammatory inducers (e.g., astrocitic ATP) is sufficient to induce the neurotoxicity by the inflammatory load of MVs.”

This correlates with disease activity in multiple sclerosis and also a significant role in Alzheimer’s disease (AD):

“Recent evidence suggest that MVs play a critical role in the spectrum of AD as well. MVs released by activated microglia participate in the neurodegenerative process of AD by promoting the generation of highly neurotoxic soluble forms of β-amyloid. Based on this collective evidence, it is now clear that EVs produced by peripheral myeloid cells, as well as immune brain cells, are novel and potentially critical biomarkers for neuroinflammatory conditions by providing a link between inflammation and neurodegeneration.”

Inflammation leads to neurodegeneration

Inflammation to neurodegeneration

Immune cells and mediators drive neurodegeneration

Immune cells in both the periphery and the brain can cause neuronal apoptosis through multiple pathways that can be targeted for therapy:

“Various triggers of apoptosis have been described with respect to the brain. Neuronal apoptosis can be directly induced by ROS, pro-inflammatory cytokines or activated immune cells…Additionally, damaged mitochondria are a major source of ROS and mediators of apoptosis. Conversely, inactivation of ROS has anti-apoptotic effects. The inflammatory cytokine TNFα and tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) directly induce neuronal apoptosis. Additionally, intracerebroventricularly injected TNFα was shown to induce depression-like symptoms. Cytokine mediated induction of apoptosis was also observed by IL-1β.”

Immune cells in the brain and the periphery cause neurodegeneration, with evidence that antiinflammatory interventions can oppose neuronal death.

“Sources of cytokines under systemic inflammation are brain resident, paravascular or peripheral immune cells. Furthermore, activated immune cells can directly induce neuronal cell death. Brain-resident microglia convey neuronal toxicity through various mechanisms including secretion of neurotoxic factors, as well as through activation of cyclooxygenase/prostaglandin E2 (COX/PGE2) pathways. In fact, blocking the COX/PGE2 pathway by experimentally deleting the prostaglandine receptor EP2 increases mitochondrial degradation of β-amyloid, potentially opening a new therapeutic avenue for AD.”

When there is systemic inflammation immune cells in the periphery in the body can gain access to the brain through the blood-brain barrier:

Peripheral immune cells can penetrate the BBB under conditions of systemic inflammation and contribute to brain pathology. Cytotoxic T-cells were shown to be directly neurotoxic in autoimmune and aging-associated neurodegenerative disorders of the CNS. Co-localization of T-cells with neurons and neuron-specific cytotoxicity of T-cells was shown in vivo and in vitro.”

Anti-brain antibodies*

Identification of anti-brain antibodies is a key clinical finding that practitioners in a wide range of disciplines should be alert for.

“B-cell-derived anti-brain antibodies have been identified as drivers of brain pathology in various diseases. In the last decade, an increasing number of anti-brain antibodies has been detected that can affect cognition and behavior…Under pathological conditions, antibodies may penetrate the BBB through different mechanisms including local and systemic inflammation, or antigen mediated endocytosis.”

Anti-NMDA antibodies have been receiving much scrutiny for neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders.

“Furthermore, NMDA-receptor-specific antibodies to the subunit 2 (GluN2) have been found in a subset of SLE patients with neuropsychiatric symptoms. These antibodies are cross-reactive to DNA…DNA–NMDA receptor antibodies preferentially bind the open configuration of the NMDA receptor and augment NMDA receptor-mediated excitatory postsynaptic potentials…Depending on the antibody concentrations, DNA–NMDA receptor antibodies can cause either neuronal dysfunction by transiently enhancing excitatory postsynaptic potentials or can result in neuronal cell death. This evidence could be of high relevance in terms of reversibility of symptoms…Furthermore, anti-brain antibodies were also shown to induce neuropsychiatric symptoms in patients with other autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel diseases. Taken together, anti-brain antibodies were shown to cause neuropsychiatric pathology in different diseases presenting novel therapeutic options.”

Inflammation disrupts neurogenesis

Both generation of new neurons and the support of synaptic health and plasticity are adversely affected by inflammation and this too is an avenue for treatment.

Neurogenesis is a central mechanism required for neuronal maintenance and adaptive plasticity in the healthy and diseased brain. Inflammatory mediators have various effects on neurogenesis. Impairment of neurogenesis was shown in neurodegenerative diseases such as AD and neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression. Interestingly, approved AD drugs and chronic antidepressant treatment induce neurogenesis. Inflammation and microglial activation is detrimental for neurogenesis that can be restored by anti-inflammatory treatment. Moreover, microglia are not only involved in the maintenance of the neurogenic niche but also in synaptic maintenance. Of interest, systemic immune cells were shown to be involved in regulation of neurogenesis. CD4+ T-cells were shown to promote while CD8+ T-cells impair proliferation of neural progenitor cells…one may speculate that neuropsychiatric symptoms elicited by chronic inflammation may be driven by detrimental changes of neuronal homeostasis. Thus, specific immune modulatory treatment might be beneficial.”

Inflammation is a core issue for brain health, cognition and mood

Case management of neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders requires discerning and treating the causes of chronic inflammation on an individual case basis. The authors conclude:

Sustained systemic inflammation is a common feature of many autoimmune disorders, and is present in most sepsis survivors. Cognitive impairment is common in sepsis survivors, as well as patients suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions…Moreover, systemic inflammation occurring in a susceptible brain (e.g., patients with AD) may lead to even further disruption in quality of life and activities of daily living. Up to 95% of patients with SLE develop neuropsychiatric dysfunction…In patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the baseline vagal tone of is persistently low, suggesting a possible mechanism for persistent inflammation. Those examples indicate that the normal neuroimmune cross-talk in health can become deleterious during disease, particularly in a primed brain – one with preexistent damage. Recently, cellular, molecular, environmental, and genetic components have been linked to the persistent brain dysfunction of systemic inflammation. Here, we have discussed mechanistic evidence for the intricate interrelation between inflammation and neurodegeneration. Identification of druggable targets derived from these mechanisms holds the promise to prevent long-term disability and improve the quality of life in patients with chronic inflammatory conditions.”

*Note: Transglutaminase-6 antibodies are included in the Wheat/Gluten Proteome Reactivity & Autoimmunity array from Cyrex Laboratories.