If you get a paper cut on your finger, the site soon becomes red and swollen. This is because of an important process in the body called inflammation – your immune system puts out an alert signal and extra blood flow brings in special immune cells to protect and repair. This kind of acute inflammation helps to fix the injury: job done, the inflammation resolves and your finger recovers.
But inflammation isn’t always good news. Chronic inflammation – the kind associated with chronic stress, smoking, obesity and an ‘auto-immune’ response – can be damaging for otherwise healthy cells and tissues, like a fire that smoulders in the wrong place for too long.
Inflammation can affect brain cells too, and this ‘fire in the brain’ may be linked with neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Science still has plenty of questions to explore about brain inflammation and disease – it’s a rapidly growing area of research.
As an example, a European project called NGINFAD is looking at the basics of how inflammation could trigger events in brain cells that lead to damage, and investigating whether reducing that inflammation could improve brain function.
Another EU-funded project, INMiND is focusing on special immune cells in the brain called microglia, exploring how inflammation and damage may be linked at a molecular level in conditions such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, neurodegeneration, epilepsy. There might be common underlying mechanisms in these diseases related to inflammation. The researchers are also looking at whether ‘modulating’ the immune system could offer a way to protect against damage in the brain. You can read more about INMiND here.
So in the future, part of the roadmap to a healthier brain could involve minding our immune system, containing the fire and keeping it working in our favour.
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