Boosting the immune system could offer a radical new way to treat Alzheimer’s disease, according to Dr Michal Schwartz from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Experiments in mice have shown that targeting immune cells arrested the damage to the brain and helped preserve cognition.
For many years it was thought that there was no communication between the brain and the immune system, and that immune cells entering the brain generated pathological inflammation linked to the destruction of brain tissue seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment, therefore, has targeted the immune system to suppress inflammation.
But in recent years, Professor Schwartz has accumulated evidence to demonstrate that the immune system actually protects the brain against Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders. In particular, she discovered that the choroid plexus that produces cerebrospinal fluid acts as an interface of the so-called ‘blood-brain barrier,’ controlling the passage of immune cells in the brain. As we age, she demonstrated that the communication between the immune system and the brain is shut off.
“We turned traditional thinking on its head. We now know that inflammation - instead of causing damage - protects the brain and is essential for repairing brain tissue,” said Professor Schwartz at the FENS Forum of Neuroscience in Berlin. She carried out studies in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease to restore the lost communication between the brain and the immune system. She found that activating the immune system drives a cascade of processes that bring in macrophages and other white blood cells that digest the damaged brain tissue.
Significantly, she found that boosting the immune activity improved memory and cognition mitigating the progress of the disease. “We gave the mice antibodies to unleash the power of the immune system. After a single injection we found that cognitive performance was improved, based on an assessment of spatial learning and memory skills. The pathology decreased and neurons were rescued,” she said.
The results indicate that directly targeting the immune system outside the brain, rather than specific factors that escalate the disease within the brain, leads to alteration of numerous processes that contribute to disease progress; this Immunotherapy may provide the first disease-modifying treatment for Alzheimer’s, as the treatment. Once the antibody has been selected and the treatment regime finalized, the next stage of her research will be a clinical trial.
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