What is lupus? You have probably heard of it, however, unless you yourself suffer from it, the likelihood of you knowing any more than its name is highly unlikely. Lupus is a life-long autoimmune disease that can attack almost any organ in the body, including the heart, lungs, and brain. And while medical science has certainly grown by leaps and bounds over the years, the cause behind many of its neurological symptoms is still a mystery to scientists.
“In general, lupus patients commonly have a broad range of neuropsychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, headaches, seizures, even psychosis,” said Allison Bialas, first author of a new study, in a statement. “But their cause has not been clear.”
The puzzle spawns from the fact that the blood-brain barrier is a highly selective thing, meaning that it only allows certain substances to pass throw, thus protecting the brain. This fact alone has caused doctors and scientists many problems over the years as the brains natural security system can also prevent life-saving medicine from reaching it. However, when it comes to lupus, the equation is what is getting through this barrier?
Doctors and scientists have known for a while now that lupus causes the patient’s immune system to attack the body’s tissues and organs. This results in white blood cells releasing proteins called type I interferons, which act like an alarm bell for the rest of the immune system.
But these proteins don’t cross the blood-brain barrier – so why the inflammation in the brain?
“There had not been any indication that type 1 interferon could get into the brain and set off immune responses there,” said senior author Michael Carroll, whose study is published in the journal Nature. You can imagine his surprise then when they discovered that these pesky interferons could indeed infiltrate the blood brain barrier. This led the microglia – immune defense cells – to attack the ever-so-important synapses in the brain.
“We’ve found a mechanism that directly links inflammation to mental illness,” said Carroll. “This discovery has huge implications for a range of central nervous system diseases.”
The discovery will hopefully provide a basis for future trials to investigate the drug’s effects on lupus and other central nervous system diseases in humans, including Alzheimer’s, viral infection, and even chronic stress.
“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.”Advertisement