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More connections made between brain and immune system

Jon Krause

Recent work from the UVA medical school’s Department of Neuroscience and the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG) continues to expand on the BIG Center’s revolutionary discovery of the connection between the brain and the immune system.

In a study of concussion, or traumatic brain injury, a research team led by assistant professor John Lukens (Grad ’08) found that swelling of the brain after such injury appeared to cause impairment in functioning of small lymphatic vessels that drain potentially damaging toxins from the brain. These new insights, drawn from work in mice and published in the journal Nature Communications, point the way to a better understanding of how traumatic brain injury plays a role in the development of long-term problems such as dementia or depression. In addition, they suggest possible areas for focus in developing more accurate diagnosis and potential treatments for traumatic brain injury, as well as assessment of recovery.

In a second study, also published in Nature Communications, researchers found that immune system cells of the brain, known as microglia, appear to help combat chronic infection from Toxoplasma gondii. This common parasite, typically spread through undercooked meat or cat feces, is believed to infect as much as one-third of the world’s population. Yet while infection can cause severe disease as well as miscarriage or stillbirth, most people who are infected never develop any symptoms. Graduate student Samantha Batista (Med ’20) and a team in the lab of associate professor Tajie Harris found evidence to help explain why, discovering that the microglia themselves die to fight the parasite, releasing an immune molecule in the process that helps recruit other immune molecules to control the infection. With further research, the team hopes to determine how the microglia detect infection by the parasite.