Hot on the heels of discovering a protective form of immune response to spinal cord injury, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have pinpointed the biological trigger for that response, a vital step toward being able to harness the body’s defenses to improve treatment for spine injuries, brain trauma, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.
The trigger for the immune response, the molecule interleukin-33, is concentrated in what is known as white matter in the healthy brain and spinal cord. Interleukin-33, the researchers have discovered, is released upon injury and activates cells called glia, beginning the body’s protective response and promoting recovery. It’s the first thing that tells the immune system that something’s been damaged. It’s how the immune system initially knows to respond.
The researchers aren’t sure if interleukin-33 has other roles to play in addition to its role in injury response. Interleukin-33 must be important to the central nervous system. It is expressed all the time, even in the healthy state, and we’ve only described its activity after injury. From an evolutionary perspective it makes little sense. The system produces this constantly just in case of injury that may never come? The team feel there must be another function beyond injury. IL-33 may represent a language through which CNS is constantly talking with the immune system, or, in other words, a molecular mind-body connection.
The team note that problems with interleukin-33 could contribute to poor outcomes after spine or brain injuries adding, that it’s possible that if there’s some problem with this molecule in patients, they will have poor alarm signaling, and they will have very poor outcomes.
The team summise that the discovery also sheds light on previous findings connecting interleukin-33 to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have identified a strong connection between interleukin-33 and Alzheimer’s disease, and the current study will pave the way for future studies on this topic.
Eventually, the findings could lead to both improved treatments and new diagnostic tests for brain and spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s and other conditions.
Source: University of Virginia
Michelle is a health industry veteran who taught and worked in the field before training as a science journalist.
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