Listeria monocytogenes is thought to colonize the brain using one of three mechanisms: direct invasion of the blood-brain barrier, transportation across the barrier by infected monocytes, and axonal migration to the brain stem. The first two pathways seem to occur following unrestricted bacterial growth in the blood and thus have been linked to immunocompromise. In contrast, cell-to-cell spread within nerves is thought to be mediated by a particular subset of neurotropic L. monocytogenes strains. In this study, we used a mouse model of foodborne transmission to evaluate the neurotropism of several L. monocytogenes isolates. Two strains preferentially colonized the brain stems of BALB/cByJ mice 5 days postinfection and were not detectable in blood at that time point. In contrast, infection with other strains resulted in robust systemic infection of the viscera but no dissemination to the brain. Both neurotropic strains (L2010-2198, a human rhombencephalitis isolate, and UKVDL9, a sheep brain isolate) typed as phylogenetic lineage III, the least characterized group of L. monocytogenes. Neither of these strains encodes InlF, an internalin-like protein that was recently shown to promote invasion of the blood-brain barrier. Acute neurologic deficits were observed in mice infected with the neurotropic strains, and milder symptoms persisted for up to 16 days in some animals. These results demonstrate that neurotropic L. monocytogenes strains are not restricted to any one particular lineage and suggest that the foodborne mouse model of listeriosis can be used to investigate the pathogenic mechanisms that allow L. monocytogenes to invade the brain stem.

IMPORTANCE Progress in understanding the two naturally occurring central nervous system (CNS) manifestations of listeriosis (meningitis/meningoencephalitis and rhombencephalitis) has been limited by the lack of small animal models that can readily distinguish between these distinct infections. We report here that certain neurotropic strains of Listeria monocytogenes can spread to the brains of young otherwise healthy mice and cause neurological deficits without causing a fatal bacteremia. The novel strains described here fall within phylogenetic lineage III, a small collection of L. monocytogenes isolates that have not been well characterized to date. The animal model reported here mimics many features of human rhombencephalitis and will be useful for studying the mechanisms that allow L. monocytogenes to disseminate to the brain stem following natural foodborne transmission.

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Published in mSphere, v. 5, issue 5, e00871-20.

Copyright © 2020 Senay et al.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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This work was supported by a grant to S.E.F.D. from the National Institutes of Health (R21AI130437) and by the Biospecimen Procurement and Translational Pathology Shared Resource Facility of the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center (P30CA177558).