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Researchers Discover a Subset of Brain Cells That Fight Inflammation with Instructions from Gut Bacteria

January 27, 2021

An international team of researchers led by researchers at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital has reported that a subset of brain cells (astrocytes) may be directed by the body’s gut bacteria (microbiome) to tame brain inflammation, such as occurs in multiple sclerosis. Figuring out how to harness this beneficial activity may lead to new treatment approaches for MS, including probiotics to alter the balance of gut bacteria. 
  • Astrocytes are abundant in the brain and spinal cord, and in addition to providing beneficial support to other brain cells, they have also been shown capable of promoting inflammation and nerve degeneration.
  • This team now reports that a specific sub-population of astrocytes can turn off inflammation within the brain, based on signals regulated by the bacteria that reside in the gut.
  • They used advanced gene- and protein-analysis tools to identify the subset of astrocytes (notated as LAMP1+TRAIL+), which reside close to the membrane that encases the brain (meninges). Their qualities enable them to express proteins that can kill off inflammation-promoting immune T cells. Further work found that their proteins are regulated by an immune messenger (interferon gamma) that is instructed by gut bacteria.
  • Further research into understanding the mechanisms driving the potentially beneficial anti-inflammatory functions of these astrocytes could enable new therapeutic approaches to combat MS, such as customized probiotics to turn on this anti-inflammatory activity.
  • The team has also found that certain brain tumors use this same biological pathway to avoid destruction by the body’s immune responses, so this work may also lead to new therapies to prevent those tumors.
  • This research was funded by the NIH, the National MS Society, the International Progressive MS Alliance through a Collaborative Research Network Award to Francisco Quintana, PhD, and other funders. 
“This is a very novel mechanism by which the gut controls inflammation in the brain, said Dr. Quintana. “We have a list of other populations of astrocytes, and we’re working to see how the gut flora may control them.”
“Gut-licensed IFN-+ NK cells drive LAMP1+TRAIL+ anti-inflammatory astrocytes,” by Drs. Liliana M. Sanmarco, Michael A. Wheeler, Francisco Quintana (Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard), and international collaborators, was published on January 6, 2021 in Nature.

Read more on Brigham and Women’s website


About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis, and there is currently no cure for MS. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment are leading to better understanding and moving us closer to a world free of MS. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and it affects women three times more than men.


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