Research Shows the Gut Is Pivotal in Protecting Brain from Microbes

November 9, 2020 13:35:01

The “Nature” journal published a research study last week that highlights the discovery of meninges to be home to plasma cells, which are immune cells that secrete antibodies. These cells are positioned near large blood vessels running in the meninges, which allows them to secrete antibodies that defend the brain’s perimeter.

For a long time, scientists couldn’t decipher how the brain remained protected against invading viruses and bacteria. However, a team of researchers led by scientists at the National Institute of Health in the United States and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, have discovered that the specific antibody type produced by these cells was the type found in the intestine.

Plasma cells originate from an immune cell known as a B cell. Each B cell has a surface antibody unique to that specific cell. If an antigen, i.e., a virus or bacterium that triggers an immune response, binds to the antibody on its surface, the B cell activates. It will do this by dividing to create a new offspring that also recognizes the same antigen.

During division, a mutation is introduced into the antibody gene by the B cell that changes the binding characteristics of an amino acid. Several B cells then produce antibodies that allow better binding to the pathogen. These continue to expand and multiply, with B cells having antibodies that aren’t good at binding ultimately being eliminated. This helps make sure that the body produces the best antibodies for picking out and eliminating particular antigens.

Antibodies found in the meninges include immunoglobulin A, which is normally made in the lining of the lungs, nose or gut. The team of researchers sequenced the plasma cells in the meninges and the gut as well as the antibody genes in the B cells. They discovered that these cells were related. Professor Menna Clatworthy, the lead scientist from the Department of Medicine at Cambridge explained that it had been a mystery to scientists how the brain protected itself from infections, so discovering that the line of its defense originated from the gut was surprising.

The researchers made this discovery using mice, which are commonly used to study physiology because they share characteristics similar to humans. The findings of the study demonstrate that the immunoglobulin A cells were absent in the meninges when mice had no bacteria present in their guts. When the researchers removed plasma cells from the meninges, microbes spread into the brain from the bloodstream.

The team then analyzed samples that had been extracted during surgery and confirmed that immunoglobulin cells were present in human meninges, thus showing that this defense system played an important role in defending people from infections of the central nervous system, such as encephalitis and meningitis.

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