Study establishes link between brain’s immune cells and neurodegenerative diseases

Neurodegenerative disease is a broad term referring to a range of mental disorders that primarily affect the neurons found in the brain. Unfortunately, any damage done to the neurons cannot be replaced, and this is the reason why most neurodegenerative diseases are incurable, leading to progressive degeneration of the nerve cells.

To find out genes linked to a variety of neurodegenerative and psychiatric diseases, scientists from the Salk Institute conducted a massive microglial survey that was published in the journal Science in May 2017. For the first time, scientists were able to characterize the molecular markers that impart uniqueness to the brain’s immune defense cells called microglia.

Mental disorders linked with microglia activity

According to Rusty Gage, professor and the Vi and John Adler Chair for Research on Age-Related Neurodegenerative Disease, “Microglia are the immune cells of the brain, but how they function in the human brain is not well understood.” “Our work not only provides links to diseases but offers a jumping off point to better understand the basic biology of these cells,” she added.

The study was the first of its kind to link mental disorders with microglia activity. Also, it was for the first time that a study was conducted to figure out the role of microglia in aiding the development of the brain. During the course of the study, the researchers collected brain tissue of 19 patients with a prior history of epilepsy, brain tumor and stroke. Using the unaffected microglia from the study group and from mouse brains, they performed multiple tests to assess which genes were switched off or on during microglial activity.

It was found that within six hours of their isolation in cultures, there was a noticeable difference in the activity of microglia cells. Nearly 2,000 genes had turned down their activity in isolation. Another significant finding was that genes linked with neurodegenerative and psychiatric illnesses were more intimately expressed in the microglia, confirming the link between these disorders and microglia activity. Genes, more likely to raise the risks of Alzheimer’s, were highly expressed in the microglia. However, the study is still in its infancy and more research is needed to understand the way microglia gets modified in people with neurodegenerative diseases.

What role does microglia play in causing mental disorders?

In the 1920s, Spanish scientist Pio del Río Hortega distinguished the microglia from the glia. Especially, in the instance of psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia, the progressive loss of brain cells to microglial activity could be responsible for the condition. The microglia are spidery shaped cells found in the brain and the spinal cord. They are primarily a macrophage, i.e., white blood cells, whose main function is to fight against the foreign invaders known as pathogens. Once an invader is detected, the microglia release signals for curbing the inflammation. In the event of neuron damaged, these snip off or trim the connections between neurons ensuring that the diseased or damaged cells or tissues are no longer a part of the brain network.

Microglia, collectively belong to the glial network. Prior studies have indicated that these cells could be responsible for neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and disabling psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, autism and depression. First observed in 1800 by pathologist, Rudolf Virchow, who named them “nervenkitt” or “neuroglia” in 1800, microglia usually come to life when brain suffers injury. Some of the primary functions of microglia are:

  • Development of the brain
  • Supplying nutrients and oxygen to the neurons, the life centers of the brain
  • Responsible for damage control during brain damage by eating away the diseased cells and then, cleaning the area by removing the debris and dead cells

Road to recovery

Though not many effective medical interventions are available to cure neurodegenerative diseases, timely diagnosis can help slow down the progression of the disease. If you or your loved one is suffering from any mental health issue, contact the Florida Mental Health Helpline to know more about the rehab facilities in Florida. Call us at our 24/7 helpline number 866-846-5588 or chat online to get more information on the treatments for mental health disorders in Florida.

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