As the brain reigns supreme over the human body, the immune system works 24/7 to defend the body from foreign invaders. For decades, however, the brain and the immune system were thought to operate independently of one another. But a growing body of evidence suggests the two are intimately connected in keeping the body healthy.
A new center has been established at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to unravel the close connections between the brain and the immune system. Such endeavors could lead to new insight into neurological illnesses – ranging from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease to schizophrenia and autism – that are linked to an immune system gone awry, and lay the groundwork for developing promising immune-based therapies to treat such illnesses.
The Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG) will be led by Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, an international leader in the new field of neuroimmunology, and the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor. Glia are brain cells that support neurons and the myriad neural connections in the brain. They’re also involved in immune surveillance within the brain.
“Neuroimmunology is one of the most exciting areas of biomedical research,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “The center is conceptualized to leverage the world-class programs in immunology and neurosciences that have flourished at Washington University for many years and will foster collaborations that draw established and early-career scientists from many departments and diverse disciplines to explore the two-way dialogue between the brain and the immune system.
“Such investigations are essential to designing innovative approaches to fight brain diseases and injuries,” Perlmutter added. “The center will also focus on areas that are ideal for urgently needed new therapies, so we envision that it will be a nidus for many new pharmaceutical industry partnerships. We are thrilled that Jony Kipnis is taking the helm and leading the way on this scientific journey.”…
…“It is clear that inflammation plays an important role in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases,” said David Holtzman, MD, the Andrew B. and Gretchen P. Jones Professor and head of the Department of Neurology. “It will be important to better understand the details of this interaction as it may provide new innovative treatment approaches. This center will play an important role in supporting basic research to investigate how altering the immune system affects brain health and disease.”
The new center is supported by the Departments of Neurology, of Neurosurgery, of Neuroscience and of Pathology and Immunology. Its current leadership team includes Kipnis, Holtzman, and Marco Colonna, MD, the Robert Rock Belliveau Professor of Pathology and Immunology. Holtzman and Colonna have uncovered intriguing links between inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. As the center grows and evolves, more experts will be added to the leadership team.