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 textbook-changing 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.”
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