SCI­EN­TIST EX­PLORES ‘7TH SENSE’ — THE LINK BE­TWEEN IM­MUNE SYS­TEM AND BRAIN

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Ta­mara Di­et­rich Staff writer

HAMP­TON — The im­mune sys­tem is a marvel, work­ing to keep the or­gans in the body healthy.

Un­til re­cently, though, sci­en­tists thought the im­mune sys­tem was less proac­tive with one par­tic­u­lar or­gan — the brain, or cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem.

“The un­der­stand­ing was that the two sys­tems don’t in­ter­act with each other — or should not in­ter­act with other — and they would only in­ter­act with each other in patholo­gies,” said Jonathan Kip­nis, head of the Depart­ment of Neu­ro­science at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia in Char­lottesville.

“So, if there is a prob­lem, the im­mune cells will get into the brain and will at­tack the brain, and then you have patholo­gies such as mul­ti­ple sclero­sis.”

But Kip­nis and his in­ter­na­tional re­search team at the uni­ver­sity’s Kip­nis Lab are turn­ing this no­tion on its head.

Their re­cent find­ings sug­gest that not only are the im­mune sys­tem and the brain more closely linked than be­lieved, but the im­mune sys­tem’s sen­sory role for the brain is so key that Kip­nis con­sid­ers it a “sev­enth sense” — af­ter sight, sound, touch, smell,

taste and sense of move­ment.

In fact, Kip­nis be­lieves that a healthy brain and healthy im­mu­nity are so in­ter­de­pen­dent that re­plen­ish­ing an im­paired im­mune sys­tem could ac­tu­ally re­store im­paired brain func­tion — and even give a lit­tle boost to ag­ing brains.

The im­pli­ca­tions are im­mense for pos­si­ble treat­ments for neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders and dis­eases from autism to Alzheimer’s to PTSD to MS.

Kip­nis was sched­uled to talk about his work in a free pub­lic lec­ture Tues­day evening at the Vir­ginia Air & Space Cen­ter in down­town Hamp­ton.

Be­cause his ap­pear­ance is spon­sored by NASA Lan­g­ley Re­search Cen­ter, how­ever, the con­tin­u­ing fed­eral gov­ern­ment shut­down is forc­ing Lan­g­ley to resched­ule to an­other date still to be de­ter­mined.

C. Michael Hol­loway, a se­nior re­search com­puter en­gi­neer at Lan­g­ley, sug­gested Kip­nis for the cen­ter’s monthly Sigma lec­ture se­ries.

“Pro­fes­sor Kip­nis and his as­so­ci­ates had made a text­bookchang­ing dis­cov­ery of a phys­i­cal con­nec­tion be­tween the cen­tral ner­vous and im­mune sys­tems in hu­mans — two sys­tems that had long been thought to be in nearly com­plete iso­la­tion from each other,” Hol­loway said.

“By it­self, this dis­cov­ery is fas­ci­nat­ing. But what makes the dis­cov­ery es­pe­cially wor­thy of a Sigma se­ries pub­lic lec­ture is the po­ten­tial for en­abling new ap­proaches for finding ef­fec­tive treat­ments, or per­haps even pre­ven­ters, of dis­eases … af­fect­ing the brain.”

Run­ning at peak

Kip­nis’s most re­cent find­ings build on his 2015 break­through that the brain is sur­rounded by lym­phatic ves­sels. Un­til then, such ves­sels were thought not to ex­ist.

That dis­cov­ery was voted one of the big­gest break­throughs of the year by the jour­nal Science.

Kip­nis now be­lieves that the lym­phatic ves­sels help main­tain brain func­tion by flush­ing away waste that brain tis­sue pro­duces to the lymph nodes, con­sid­ered the com­mand cen­ter of the im­mune sys­tem.

As we age, the lym­phatic sys­tem can start to de­te­ri­o­rate, af­fect­ing brain func­tion. But Kip­nis’ team found a way to re­verse some of those ef­fects by tar­get­ing the lym­phatic ves­sels.

They ap­plied a gel con­tain­ing a growth fac­tor to the skulls of aged mice, and as a re­sult those mice out­per­formed their peers in mem­ory and learn­ing tasks.

The gel worked by re­ju­ve­nat­ing the lym­phatic ves­sels, causing them to en­large and drain waste from the brain bet­ter.

There is a caveat though: Such treat­ments can’t work mir­a­cles and cre­ate brand new Ein­steins.

“You can­not take a Fiat and turn it into a Mercedes, be­cause it’s a dif­fer­ent en­gine, it’s a dif­fer­ent car,” Kip­nis said.

In­stead, he said, think of a healthy im­mune sys­tem as a pit crew that can help an in­di­vid­ual ma­chine run at its own peak level.

In an­other ex­per­i­ment, the team found that a healthy im­mune sys­tem al­le­vi­ated stress in mice that were ex­posed to cat urine — a big trig­ger for mice. It even went a long way to­ward prevent­ing post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

Ac­cord­ing to Kip­nis, 70 per­cent to 80 per­cent of mice with im­paired im­mune sys­tems de­vel­oped PTSD in stress ex­per­i­ments, com­pared to only 10 per­cent to 15 per­cent of mice with healthy im­mune sys­tems.

“There is a lot of re­search still yet to be done in or­der to un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing,” Kip­nis said.

But their on­go­ing work at the molec­u­lar level con­tin­ues, and one day could lead to new drugs or med­i­cal treat­ments for a host of neu­ro­log­i­cal ills, he said.

“I think ev­ery­body in bio­med­i­cal re­search is dreaming that his or her dis­cov­er­ies will im­pact hu­man health,” said Kip­nis. “At the end of the day, that’s why we’re here.”

COUR­TESY OF JACK­SON SMITH/U.VA. HEALTH SYS­TEM

Jonathan Kip­nis, head of the Depart­ment of Neu­ro­science at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia in Char­lottesville, has been study­ing the way the im­mune sys­tem af­fects brain func­tion.

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