Research on immune cells in the brain

New revelations about the function of microglial cells in the malignant form of Parkinson’s disease

Microglia are immune cells found in the brain. They carry out critical functions such as defending against pathogens and eliminating damaged cells. At the same time, they can be harmful to the brain. An international research team led by the FAU’s University Hospital Erlangen has now gained more precise insights into these cells in multisystem atrophy, a rapidly progressing atypical Parkinson’s disease (MSA).

MSA is a brain disease that progresses quickly and kills within ten years. There is currently no way to prevent or treat it. Typical Parkinson’s symptoms include slowed movements, swallowing and speech problems, low blood pressure, and bladder weakness. It is a rare disease that affects about two out of every hundred Parkinson’s patients.

It has been demonstrated that in conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis, immune cells of the brain, known as microglial cells, can interfere and become overly activated, causing damage to other surrounding cells and tissues. As a result, therapeutic approaches aim to reduce the number of microglial cells in order to mitigate these negative effects.

An international team of neuroscientists led by Dr. Alana Hoffmann from the University Hospital Erlangen, in collaboration with the University of California San Diego and the National Institutes of Health (both in the United States), has now demonstrated that a lower number of microglial cells in MSA has both positive and negative consequences.

They were able to reduce the number of microglial cells in an MSA mouse model by blocking a specific receptor on these cells.
As a result, the animals lived longer and neurological symptoms appeared later.
However, despite the reduction in microglial cells, the researchers discovered that motor skills such as balance and coordination were more impaired, as neuronal changes in brain regions important for motor function were detected.
The researchers were able to demonstrate convincingly in this study that microglial cells are neither good nor bad in the context of MSA.
As a result, more research is needed to understand the dual function of these cells, with the long-term goal of developing novel therapies for MSA patients.