Tel.+49 30 838 62450 Fax.+49 30 838 62522
Pigeon protozoal encephalitis (PPE) is an emerging central-nervous disease of domestic pigeons (Columba livia f. domestica) reported in Germany and the United States. It is caused by the apicomplexan parasite Sarcocystis calchasi which is transmitted by Accipter hawks. In contrast to other members of the Apicomplexa such as Toxoplasma and Plasmodium, the knowledge about the pathophysiology and host manipulation of Sarcocystis is scarce and almost nothing is known about PPE. Here we show by mRNA expression profiling a significant down-modulation of the interleukin (IL)-12/IL-18/interferon (IFN)-γ axis in the brains of experimentally infected pigeons during the schizogonic phase of disease. Concomitantly, no cellular immune response was observed in histopathology while immunohistochemistry and nested PCR detected S. calchasi. In contrast, in the late central-nervous phase, IFN-γ and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) α-related cytokines were significantly up-modulated, which correlated with a prominent MHC-II protein expression in areas of mononuclear cell infiltration and necrosis. The mononuclear cell fraction was mainly composed of T-lymphocytes, fewer macrophages and B-lymphocytes. Surprisingly, the severity and composition of the immune cell response appears unrelated to the infectious dose, although the severity and onset of the central nervous signs clearly was dose-dependent. We identified no or only very few tissue cysts by immunohistochemistry in pigeons with severe encephalitis of which one pigeon repeatedly remained negative by PCR despite severe lesions. Taken together, these observations may suggest an immune evasion strategy of S. calchasi during the early phase and a delayed-type hypersensitivity reaction as cause of the extensive cerebral lesions during the late neurological phase of disease.