Maternal immune activation with staphylococcal enterotoxin A produces unique behavioral changes in C57BL/6 mouse offspring

Ruthy Glass, Sara Norton, Nicholas Fox, Alexander W. Kusnecov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Stimulation of the immune system during pregnancy, known as maternal immune activation (MIA), can cause long-lasting neurobiological and behavioral changes in the offspring. This phenomenon has been implicated in the etiology of developmental psychiatric disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia. Much of this evidence is predicated on animal models using bacterial agents such as LPS and/or viral mimics such as Poly I:C, both of which act through toll-like receptors. However, fewer studies have examined the role of direct activation of maternal T-cells during pregnancy using microbial agents. Bacterial superantigens, such as Staphylococcal Enterotoxin A and B (SEA; SEB), are microbial proteins that activate CD4+ T-cells and cause prominent T-cell proliferation and cytokine production. We injected pregnant and non-pregnant adult female C57BL/6 mice with 200 μg/Kg of SEA, SEB, or 0.9% saline, and measured splenic T-cell-derived cytokine concentrations (viz., IL-2, IFN-γ, IL-6, and IL-4) 2 h later; animals injected with SEA were also measured for splenic concentrations of TNF-α and IL-17A. Half of the injected pregnant animals were brought to term, and their offspring were tested on a series of behavioral tasks starting at six weeks of age (postnatal day 42 [P42]). These tasks included social interaction, the elevated plus maze (EPM), an open field and object recognition (OR) task, prepulse inhibition (PPI) of sensorimotor gating, and the Morris water maze (MWM). Results showed that SEA and SEB induced significant concentrations of all measured cytokines, and in particular IFN-γ, although cytokine responses were greater following SEA exposure. In addition, pregnancy induced an inhibitory effect on cytokine production. Behavioral results showed distinct phenotypes among offspring from SEA- or SEB-injected mothers, very likely due to differences in the magnitude of cytokines generated in response to each toxin. Offspring from SEA-injected mothers displayed modest decreases in social behavior, but increased anxiety, locomotion, interest in a novel object, and short-term spatial memory, while offspring of SEB-injected mothers only exhibited increased anxiety and locomotion. There were no deficits in PPI, which was actually pronounced in SEA and SEB offspring. Overall, the novel use of SEA and SEB as prenatal immune challenges elicited distinct behavioral profiles in the offspring that both mirrors and diverges from previous models of maternal immune activation in important ways. We conclude that superantigen-induced T-cell-mediated maternal immune activation is a valid and valuable model for studying and expanding our understanding of the effects of prenatal immune challenge on neurodevelopmental and behavioral alterations in offspring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12-25
Number of pages14
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
StatePublished - Jan 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Immunology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Bacterial superantigens
  • C57BL/6
  • Maternal immune activation
  • Staphylococcal enterotoxin A
  • Staphylococcal enterotoxin B


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