Infection and immunity 2017 08 1885(9) pii 10.1128/IAI.00364-17
Repeated stimulation of T cells that occurs in the context of chronic infection results in progressively reduced responsiveness of T cells to pathogen-derived antigens. This phenotype, known as T cell exhaustion, occurs during chronic infections caused by a variety of pathogens, from persistent viruses to parasites. Unlike the memory cells that typically form after successful pathogen clearance following an acute infection, exhausted T cells secrete lower levels of effector cytokines, proliferate less in response to cognate antigen, and upregulate cell surface inhibitory molecules such as PD-1 and LAG-3. The molecular events that lead to the induction of this phenotype have, however, not been fully characterized. In T cells, members of the NFAT family of transcription factors not only are responsible for the expression of many activation-induced genes but also are crucial for the induction of transcriptional programs that inhibit T cell activation and maintain tolerance. Here we show that NFAT1-deficient CD4(+) T cells maintain higher proliferative capacity and expression of effector cytokines following Plasmodium yoelii infection and are therefore more resistant to P. yoelii-induced exhaustion than their wild-type counterparts. Consequently, gene expression microarray analysis of CD4(+) T cells following P. yoelii-induced exhaustion shows upregulation of effector T cell-associated genes in the absence of NFAT1 compared with wild-type exhausted T cells. Furthermore, adoptive transfer of NFAT1-deficient CD4(+) T cells into mice infected with P. yoelii results in increased production of antibodies to cognate antigen. Our results support the idea that NFAT1 is necessary to fully suppress effector responses during Plasmodium-induced CD4(+) T cell exhaustion.