Immune molecule regulates brain connections

February 27, 2011, University of California - Davis

The number of connections between nerve cells in the brain can be regulated by an immune system molecule, according to a new study from UC Davis. The research, published Feb. 27 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, reveals a potential link between immunity, infectious disease and conditions such as schizophrenia or autism.

Schizophrenia, and other disorders are associated with changes in connectivity in the , said Kimberley McAllister, associate professor in the Center for Neuroscience and Departments of Neurology and Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior at UC Davis. Those changes affect the ability of the brain to process information correctly.

"Certain immune genes and immune dysregulation have also been associated with autism and , and the immune molecules that we study in brain development could be a pathway that contributes to that altered connectivity," McAllister said.

The study does not show a direct link between immune responses and autism, but rather reveals a molecular pathway through which a peripheral or particular genetic profile could alter early brain development, McAllister said.

The researchers looked at a protein called Major Histocompatibility Complex type 1 (MHC type I). In both rodents and humans, these proteins vary between individuals, and allow the immune system to distinguish between 'self' and 'non-self.' They play a role, for example, in rejecting transplanted organs and in defending against cancer and virus infections.

In this and another recently published study, McAllister's group found that MHC type I molecules are present on young during early postnatal development. To test their function, they studied mice lacking MHC type I on the surface of neurons, as well as isolated neurons from mice and rats with altered levels of MHC type I. They found that when the density of these molecules on the surface of a brain cell goes up, the number of connections, or synapses, it has with neighboring brain cells goes down. The reverse was also true: decreased MHC expression increased synaptic connections.

"The effect on synapse density was mediated through MHC type I proteins," McAllister said.

"But these immune proteins don't just regulate synapse density, they also determine the balance of excitation and inhibition on young neurons -- a property critical for information processing and plasticity in young brains."

Expression of MHCI on was itself regulated by neural activity, the team found, and MHCI mediated the ability of neural activity to alter synaptic connections.

About 10 years ago, other researchers discovered that MHC type I is involved in elimination of connections during a critical period of late postnatal brain development.

"We have now found that there is another role for MHC type I in establishing connections during early postnatal development of the brain," McAllister said.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Finding unravels nature of cognitive inflexibility in fragile X syndrome

January 22, 2018
Mice with the genetic defect that causes fragile X syndrome (FXS) learn and remember normally, but show an inability to learn new information that contradicts what they initially learned, shows a new study by a team of neuroscientists. ...

Epilepsy linked to brain volume and thickness differences

January 22, 2018
Epilepsy is associated with thickness and volume differences in the grey matter of several brain regions, according to new research led by UCL and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.