Immune system could have one other job—combatting melancholy

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Immune system may have another job—combatting depression

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An autoimmune inflammatory response within the central nervous system, similar to one associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), has also been found in the spinal fluid of healthy people. This is according to a new study conducted by Yale that compared cells of the immune system in the spine and fluid from MS patients and healthy volunteers. The study, published September 18 in the journal Science Immunology, suggests that these immune cells may play a role other than protecting against microbial invaders – protecting our mental health.

The results support an emerging theory that gamma interferons, a type of immune cell that induces and modulates a variety of immune system responses, may also play a role in preventing depression in healthy people.

"We were surprised that normal spinal fluid would be so interesting," said David Hafler, Edgerly Professor of Neurology with William S. and Lois Stiles, Professor of Immunobiology and lead author on the study.

Previous research has shown that blocking gamma interferons and the T cells that produce them can cause depression-like symptoms in mice. Hafler notes that depression is also a common side effect in patients with MS who were treated with a different type of interferon.

Using a powerful new technology that enables detailed examination of individual cells, the researchers show that while the properties of T cells in the spinal fluid of healthy people are similar to those of people with MS, they lack the ability to replicate and the harmful inflammation causing reaction in autoimmune diseases like MS.

Essentially, the immune system in everyone's brain is ready to trigger an inflammatory response in the immune system, and it could have a function other than fighting off pathogens, Hafler said.

"These T cells serve a different purpose and we speculate that they might help maintain our sanity," he said.

Hafler said his lab and colleagues at Yale want to study how immune system responses in the central nervous system might affect psychiatric disorders like depression.

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More information:
J.L. Pappalardo et al., "Transcriptomic and Clonal Characterization of T Cells in the Human Central Nervous System", Science Immunology (2020). immunology.sciencemag.org/look… 6 / sciimmunol.abb8786

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Yale University

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