Now, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have found that “the immune system directly affects – and even controls – social behavior, such as the desire to interact with others.” This is a textbook shattering discovery! It has significant implications for neurological diseases like autism spectrum disorders.
Jonathan Kipnis, chair of UVA’s Department of Neuroscience explains, “The brain and the adaptive immune system were thought to be isolated from each other, and any immune activity in the brain was perceived as sign of a pathology. And now, not only are we showing that they are closely interacting, but some of our behavior traits might have evolved because of our immune response to pathogens… Part of our personality may actually be dictated by the immune system.”
What lead up to this new understanding? His team discovered:
1: Within the meninges (the membrane that covers the brain) are lymphatic vessels that directly link the brain to the lymphatic system. Up until this discovery, no one knew they existed. This new discovery alone changes what has been taught about the brain!
2: The immune molecule, interferon gamma plays a “profound role in maintaining proper social function.” Normally, this molecule is produced by the immune system responding to the threats mentioned above. During their study, the scientists blocked this molecule in mice and “it made regions of the brain hyperactive, causing the mice to become less social.” When they restored the molecule, “the brain connectivity and behavior was normal.” This molecule certainly seems to be vital for social behavior.
“Using this approach we predicted a role for interferon gamma, an important cytokine secreted by T lymphocytes, in promoting social brain functions. Our findings contribute to a deeper understanding of social dysfunction in neurological disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia, and may open new avenues for therapeutic approaches,” said Vladimir Litvak leader of a research group at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
I am hopeful that this discovery – that the immune system affects our social interactions – will further unlock the mysteries of ASD and how to treat it. Until then, let’s do all we can to support the neurotypical (NT) partners and family members in a relationship with someone with Asperger’s.
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