Immune control switch could prevent brain injury in premature babies | more lifestyle


A new study has found a switch, capable of protecting the brains of premature babies, who often suffer injuries when their immune response goes into overdrive.

Through a series of clinical and pre-clinical studies, an international research team has for the first time worked out how to calm down hyperactive microglia, the brain’s immune cells.

The research points to a potential treatment for reducing brain injury in premature babies, showing microglia could be successfully targeted with drugs to control their harmful overactive behaviour.

The research, conducted over seven years by scientists and clinicians from Australia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore and Sweden has been published in the journal — Brain.

Senior co-author, RMIT University’s Dr Bobbi Fleiss, said previous research had shown that exposure to inflammation was a driver of both premature birth and brain injury in babies.

“Inflammation is our body’s natural way of fighting infection, but the immune cells that drive this response can react too strongly in the developing brain and go into hyperdrive,” said Fleiss, a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT.

“This intense immune response not only damages the baby’s brain, but it also diverts those cells from their other job of supervising brain development. We’ve discovered a way to tone down the hyperactivity without affecting the critical brain-building work, using microglia targeted therapeutic approach,” added Fleiss.

“It’s incredibly exciting because until now, we’ve known so little about the mechanisms that control the behaviour of microglia. This discovery gives us a solid way forward for developing new brain-protective therapies that will help millions of premature babies, and their families, around the world,” continued Fleiss.

Senior co-author, Professor Pierre Gressens from Inserm and the University of Paris, said doctors currently had no treatment options for stopping or preventing brain injury in premature babies.

“Inflammatory activation of microglia in the developing brain is associated with permanent neurological impacts in 9 million preterm babies around the globe every year,” Gressens said.

“There is a lot more work ahead to develop our treatment for clinical use, but these findings bring us significantly closer to delivering life-changing therapies for these vulnerable infants,” added Gressens.

When microglia go into overdrive, they harm the brain’s white matter – a protective cocoon of fat that insulates nerve fibres and helps electrical signals move around the brain and body quickly and effectively.

If there is not enough white matter or if it is damaged, nerve pulses travel too slowly, affecting movement and cognition.

The key to controlling the harmful behaviour of the microglia is a signalling pathway known as the Wnt.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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First Published:
Oct 31, 2019 17:30 IST


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