A surprising new link between inflammation and mental illness

June 14, 2017, Children's Hospital Boston
In the brain, a synapse (orange) is seen being wrapped around and attacked by immune cells called microglia (green), leading to synapse loss. Credit: Boston Children's Hospital

Up to 75 percent of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus—an incurable autoimmune disease commonly known as lupus—experience neuropsychiatric symptoms. But so far, our understanding of the mechanisms underlying lupus' effects on the brain has remained murky. Now, new research from Boston Children's Hospital has shed light on the mystery and points to a potential new drug for protecting the brain from the neuropsychiatric effects of lupus and other central nervous system (CNS) diseases. The team has published its surprising findings in Nature.

"In general, lupus patients commonly have a broad range of , including anxiety, depression, headaches, seizures, even psychosis," says Allison Bialas, PhD, first author on the study and a research fellow working in the lab of Michael Carroll, PhD, senior author on the study, who are part of the Boston Children's Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. "But their cause has not been clear—for a long time it wasn't even appreciated that these were symptoms of the disease.

Collectively, lupus' neuropsychiatric symptoms are known as central nervous system (CNS) lupus. Carroll's team wondered if changes in the immune system in were directly causing these symptoms from a pathological standpoint.

"How does chronic inflammation affect the ?"

Lupus, which affects at least 1.5 million Americans, causes the immune systems to attack the body's tissues and organs. This causes the body's to release type 1 interferon-alpha, a small cytokine protein that acts as a systemic alarm, triggering a cascade of additional immune activity as it binds with receptors in different tissues.

Until now, however, these circulating cytokines were not thought to be able to cross the blood brain barrier, the highly-selective membrane that controls the transfer of materials between circulating blood and the central nervous system (CNS) fluids.

"There had not been any indication that type 1 interferon could get into the brain and set off immune responses there," says Carroll, who is also professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

So, working with a mouse model of lupus, it was quite unexpected when Carroll's team discovered that enough interferon-alpha did indeed appear to permeate the blood brain barrier to cause changes in the brain. Once across the barrier, it launched microglia—the immune defense cells of the CNS—into attack mode on the brain's neuronal synapses. This caused synapses to be lost in the frontal cortex.

Interferon-alpha could be detected within the brain (red) and active interferon-alpha receptor signaling (IFNAR) was also observed (green), which is responsible for triggering microglia attack on synapses. Credit: Boston Children's Hospital
"We've found a mechanism that directly links inflammation to mental illness," says Carroll. "This discovery has huge implications for a range of central nervous system diseases."

Blocking inflammation's effects on the brain

The team decided to see if they could reduce synapse loss by administering a drug that blocks interferon-alpha's receptor, called an anti-IFNAR.

Remarkably, they found that anti-IFNAR did seem to have neuro-protective effects in mice with lupus, preventing synapse loss when compared with mice who were not given the drug. What's more, they noticed that mice treated with anti-IFNAR had a reduction in behavioral signs associated with mental illnesses such as anxiety and cognitive defects.

Although further study is needed to determine exactly how interferon-alpha is crossing the , the team's findings establish a basis for future clinical trials to investigate the effects of anti-IFNAR drugs on CNS lupus and other CNS diseases. One such anti-IFNAR, anifrolumab, is currently being evaluated in a phase 3 human clinical trial for treating other aspects of lupus.

"We've seen microglia dysfunction in other diseases like schizophrenia, and so now this allows us to connect lupus to other CNS diseases," says Bialas. "CNS lupus is not just an undefined cluster of neuropsychiatric symptoms, it's a real disease of the brain—and it's something that we can potentially treat."

The implications go beyond because inflammation underpins so many diseases and conditions, ranging from Alzheimer's to viral infection to chronic stress.

"Are we all losing synapses, to some varying degree?" Carroll suggests. His team plans to find out.

Explore further: Novel small molecule drug may help to ease symptoms in lupus sufferers

More information: Allison R. Bialas et al. Microglia-dependent synapse loss in type I interferon-mediated lupus, Nature (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nature22821

Related Stories

Novel small molecule drug may help to ease symptoms in lupus sufferers

March 7, 2017
Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease, has proved difficult to treat, but a new international study co-led by a Rush University Medical Center researcher suggests that a drug starting through the pipeline could ameliorate or ...

Enzyme keeps antibodies from targeting DNA and driving inflammation in lupus

June 9, 2016
Failure of an enzyme to break down DNA spilling into the bloodstream as cells die may be a major driver of inflammation in lupus. This is the finding of a study in both mice and human patients led by researchers at NYU Langone ...

For lupus patients, anti-inflammatory immune cells are maturing Into wrong cell type

March 8, 2016
One of the mysteries of lupus is why the immune cells that normally keep inflammation at bay can't seem to do their job. A University College London study published on March 8 in Immunity now suggests that for people with ...

Lupus a tough disease to spot, treat

May 30, 2016
(HealthDay)—Lupus is difficult to diagnose and treat, but scientists are working to learn more about its genetic causes and to develop better treatments.

Researchers find new clue in lupus autoantibody production

April 12, 2016
A signaling molecule called interferon gamma could hold the key to understanding how harmful autoantibodies form in lupus patients. The finding could lead to new treatments for the chronic autoimmune disease, said researchers ...

Stressed out interferons reveal potential key to alternative lupus treatment

February 10, 2017
Only one new drug has become available over the past 50 years for the estimated 1.5 million Americans and five million-plus people worldwide suffering from lupus, but new research has identified a previously unknown mechanism ...

Recommended for you

A bad influence—the interplay between tumor cells and immune cells

October 16, 2018
Research at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah (U of U) yielded new insights into the environment surrounding different types of lung tumors, and described how these complex cell ecosystems may in turn ...

Function of neutrophils during tumor progression unraveled

October 15, 2018
Researchers at The Wistar Institute have characterized the function of neutrophils, a type of white blood cells, during early stages of tumor progression, showing that they migrate from the bone marrow to distant sites and ...

Immune health maintained by meticulously ordered DNA

October 15, 2018
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researchers have revealed how immune health is maintained by the exquisite organisation skills of a protein called Pax5.

New immunotherapy targeting blood-clotting protein

October 15, 2018
Normally, the blood protein fibrin does not enter the brain. But in several neurological disorders, the blood-brain barrier—which keeps large molecules in the blood from entering the brain—becomes abnormally permeable, ...

Enzyme that triggers autoimmune responses from T-cells in patients with MS found

October 11, 2018
A team of researchers from Switzerland, the U.S. and Spain has isolated an enzyme that triggers an autoimmune response from T-cells in patients with MS. In their paper published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, ...

Scientists reveal new cystic fibrosis treatments work best in inflamed airways

October 11, 2018
A new UNC School of Medicine study shows that two cystic fibrosis (CF) drugs aimed at correcting the defected CFTR protein seem to be more effective when a patient's airway is inflamed. This is the first study to evaluate ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RichManJoe
5 / 5 (1) Jun 14, 2017
From the abstract, over 10,000 people were studied. All subjects were 62 in the year 2000 meaning that they were possibly exposed to polio prior to the introduction of the polio vaccines in the 1950's. The majority of people who had contracted polio were not diagnosed with polio, had symptoms like a flu or subtle muscle weakness and fully recovered. Since polio affects both the nervous system and can result in chronic muscle pain, muscle weakness and degenerative joint disease in later life, it could provide a common cause for at least some of the cases studied.
nrauhauser
not rated yet Jun 14, 2017
All subjects were 62 in the year 2000 meaning that they were possibly exposed to polio


That seems like a long, floppy chain of events to explain the effects. They can do the study again with 62 year olds this year and avoid that problem, right?
RichManJoe
not rated yet Jun 15, 2017
@nrauhauser but so is post polio.

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.