Inflammation and monocytes are thought to be important to human malaria pathogenesis. However, the relationship of inflammation and various monocyte functions to acute malaria, recovery from acute malaria, and asymptomatic parasitemia in endemic populations is poorly understood.
We evaluated plasma cytokine levels, monocyte subsets, monocyte functional responses, and monocyte inflammatory transcriptional profiles of 1- to 10-year-old Kenyan children at the time of presentation with acute uncomplicated malaria and at recovery 6 weeks later; these results were compared with analogous data from asymptomatic children and adults in the same community.
Acute malaria was marked by elevated levels of proinflammatory and regulatory cytokines and expansion of the inflammatory "intermediate" monocyte subset that returned to levels of healthy asymptomatic children 6 weeks later. Monocytes displayed activated phenotypes during acute malaria, with changes in surface expression of markers important to innate and adaptive immunity. Functionally, acute malaria monocytes and monocytes from asymptomatic infected children had impaired phagocytosis of P. falciparum-infected erythrocytes relative to asymptomatic children with no blood-stage infection. Monocytes from both acute malaria and recovery time points displayed strong and equivalent cytokine responsiveness to innate immune agonists that were independent of infection status. Monocyte transcriptional profiles revealed regulated and balanced proinflammatory and antiinflammatory and altered phagocytosis gene expression patterns distinct from malaria-naive monocytes.
These observations provide insights into monocyte functions and the innate immune response during uncomplicated malaria and suggest that asymptomatic parasitemia in children is not clinically benign.