Impact of the host immune response on the development of equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy in horses

K. S. Giessler, L. S. Goehring, S. I. Jacob, Allison Davis, M. M. Esser, Y. Lee, L. M. Zarski, P. S.D. Weber, G. S. Hussey

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1 Scopus citations


Herpesviruses establish a well-adapted balance with their host’s immune system. Despite this co-evolutionary balance, infections can lead to severe disease including neurological disorders in their natural host. In horses, equine herpesvirus 1 (EHV-1) causes respiratory disease, abortions, neonatal foal death and myeloencephalopathy (EHM) in ~10% of acute infections worldwide. Many aspects of EHM pathogenesis and protection from EHM are still poorly understood. However, it has been shown that the incidence of EHM increases to >70% in female horses >20 years of age. In this study we used old mares as an experimental equine EHV-1 model of EHM to identify host-specific factors contributing to EHM. Following experimental infection with the neuropathogenic strain EHV-1 Ab4, old mares and yearling horses were studied for 21 days post-infection. Nasal viral shedding and cell-associated viremia were assessed by quantitative PCR. Cytokine/chemokine responses were evaluated in nasal secretions and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) by Luminex assay and in whole blood by quantitative real-time PCR. EHV-1-specific IgG sub-isotype responses were measured by ELISA. All young horses developed respiratory disease and a bi-phasic fever post-infection, but only 1/9 horses exhibited ataxia. In contrast, respiratory disease was absent in old mares, but all old mares developed EHM that resulted in euthanasia in 6/9 old mares. Old mares also presented significantly decreased nasal viral shedding but higher viremia coinciding with a single fever peak at the onset of viremia. According to clinical disease manifestation, horses were sorted into an EHM group (nine old horses and one young horse) and a non-EHM group (eight young horses) for assessment of host immune responses. Non-EHM horses showed an early upregulation of IFN-α (nasal secretions), IRF7/IRF9, IL-1β, CXCL10 and TBET (blood) in addition to an IFN-γ upregulation during viremia (blood). In contrast, IFN-α levels in nasal secretions of EHM horses were low and peak levels of IRF7, IRF9, CXCL10 and TGF-β (blood) coincided with viremia. Moreover, EHM horses showed significantly higher IL-10 levels in nasal secretions, peripheral blood mononuclear cells and CSF and higher serum IgG3/5 antibody titres compared to non-EHM horses. These results suggest that protection from EHM depends on timely induction of type 1 IFN and upregulation cytokines and chemokines that are representative of cellular immunity. In contrast, induction of regulatory or TH-2 type immunity appeared to correlate with an increased risk for EHM. It is likely that future vaccine development for protection from EHM must target shifting this ‘at-risk’ immunophenotype.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of General Virology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2024

Bibliographical note

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© 2024 The Authors.


  • IgG subisotype
  • equine herpesvirus 1 (EHV-1)
  • equine herpesvirus myeloencephalopathy (EHM)
  • herpesvirus pathogenesis
  • host immune response
  • interferon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Virology


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