It is not known why natural killer T (NKT) cells, which modulate liver injury by regulating local cytokine production, are reduced in leptin-deficient ob/ob mice. NKT cells express adrenoceptors. Thus, we hypothesize that the low norepinephrine (NE) activity of ob/ob mice promotes depletion of liver NKT cells, thereby sensitizing ob/ob livers to lipopolysaccharide (LPS) toxicity. To evaluate this hypothesis, hepatic NKT cells were quantified in wild-type mice before and after treatment with NE inhibitors, and in dopamine β-hydroxylase knockout mice (which cannot synthesize NE) and ob/ob mice before and after 4 weeks of NE supplementation. Decreasing NE activity consistently reduces liver NKT cells, while increasing NE has the opposite effect. Analysis of hepatic and thymic NKT cells in mice of different ages demonstrate an age-related accumulation of hepatic NKT cells in normal mice, while liver NKT cells become depleted after birth in ob/ob mice, which have increased apoptosis of hepatic NKT cells. NE treatment inhibits apoptosis and restores hepatic NKT cells. In ob/ob mice with reduced hepatic NKT cells, hepatic T and NKT cells produce excessive T helper (Th)-1 proinflammatory cytokines and the liver is sensitized to LPS toxicity. NE treatment decreases Th-1 cytokines, increases production of Th-2 cytokines, and reduces hepatotoxicity. Studies of CD1d-deficient mice, which lack the receptor required for NKT cell development, demonstrate that they are also unusually sensitive to LPS hepatotoxicity. In conclusion, low NE activity increases hepatic NKT cell apoptosis and depletes liver NKT cells, promoting proinflammatory polarization of hepatic cytokine production that sensitizes the liver to LPS toxicity.
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