Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Neural Stimulators Control Inflammatory Processes

Scientists have known about the connection between the mind-brain and the immune system for many decades. From the "laughter cure" devised by Norman Cousins to mitigate a severe inflammatory disease to the decades old scientific discipline of psychoneuroimmunology, the importance of the connection between the brain and the immune system has been known. A malfunctioning immune system leads to both suffering and an early death, so discovering better ways to dampen an out of control immune response is vital to achieving long and healthy lives.

But finding the best way of controlling immune function by way of the brain has not always been easy. One of the latest attempts at such control comes from a business startup in Boston called Setpoint Medical.
The technology is based on a decade of research elucidating how the brain controls the immune system, particularly inflammation. The treatment has not yet been tested in patients, but based on animal research, scientists hope it will provide an alternative treatment that is more effective and have fewer side effects than existing drugs.

...Over the last decade, Kevin Tracey, an immunologist and neurosurgeon at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, NY, has shown that inflammation is controlled in part by the vagus nerve, which carries signals between the brain and a number of visceral organs. Most notably for immune function, it makes direct connections to the spleen, which houses different types of immune cells poised for release at times of infection.

Numerous animal studies have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve can put a brake on the immune system, stopping the rapid recruitment of immune cells to the site of injury or infection. "Think of it as a thermostat for the immune system," says James Broderick, interim president of the company and a partner at Morgenthaler Ventures, Setpoint's key investor. "This reflex puts a damper on the immune system."

The effect is similar to that of a popular class of drugs, called TNF alpha blockers, used to treat arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. These drugs block the release of an immune signaling molecule that is central to inducing inflammation. While they work effectively in 50 to 70 percent of patients, the drugs can lose their effectiveness over time and have been linked to some serious side effects, such as infection and cancer. Vagus nerve stimulation blocks both the signal molecule and other cytokines involved in inflammation. _TechnologyReview
This novel approach to treating autoimmune diseases and hyper-immune responses may be used instead of drug treatment, or along with drug treatment to allow lower doses of drugs.



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