New immune culprit discovered in Alzheimer’s disease: Immune cells in brain and spinal fluid become dysregulated and ‘a little angry’ as we age

The reason your three-pound brain doesn’t feel heavy is because it floats in a reservoir of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which flows in and around your brain and spinal cord. This liquid barrier between your brain and skull protects it from a hit to your head and bathes your brain in nutrients.

But the CSF has another critical, if less known, function: it also provides immune protection to the brain. Yet, this function hasn’t been well studied.

A Northwestern Medicine study of CSF has discovered its role in cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease. This discovery provides a new clue to the process of neurodegeneration, said study lead author David Gate, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The study will be published Dec. 13 in Cell.

The study found that, as people age, their CSF immune system becomes dysregulated. In people with cognitive impairment, such as those with Alzheimer’s disease, the CSF immune system is drastically different from healthy individuals, the study also discovered.

“We now have a glimpse into the brain’s immune system with healthy aging and neurodegeneration,” Gate said. “This immune reservoir could potentially be used to treat inflammation of the brain or be used as a diagnostic to determine the level of brain inflammation in individuals with dementia.”

“We provide a thorough analysis of this important immunologic reservoir of the healthy and diseased brain,” Gate said. His team is sharing the data publicly, and its results can be searched online.

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