Pint of Science – The Immune System and The Brain


On Tuesday 19th May, Dr Jessica Teeling, Dr Jay Amin, and James Fuller will be at the Juniper Berry in Castle Square talking about the role of the immune system in Alzheimer’s disease and the possibility of developing novel treatments.

Dr Jessica Teeling is an associate professor in immunology based at the Institute for Life Sciences. The aim of her research is to look at how the body, and specifically its immune system, communicates with the brain, particularly with reference to dementia. Your immune system causes inflammation in areas of infection or injury, which is normal in healthy people. In sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, the immune system can be activated “too much” in the brain, giving an exaggerated response, and leading to irreversible changes to the neurons. If patients in early stages of dementia get an infection, they can deteriorate 5-6 times faster, in some cases, than those not suffering infections. As well as this, having a chronic inflammatory disease such as rheumatoid arthritis can increase your chance of developing dementia. Certain other risk factors and lifestyle choices can be linked to early onset, in some cases through inflammation of the blood vessels, possibly leading to vascular dementia. This is why there is also an interest in vascular dementia when looking to see if there is a link between the body and the brain in this way, because it is the blood vessels which cross that barrier.

Work being done at the Institute for Life Sciences and Southampton General Hospital is looking at ways to use this knowledge to help patients, or possibly come up with preventative measures. James Fuller, a student of Jessica’s, will be talking about using antibody therapy to remove “plaques” in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients – build ups of a protein called amyloid-beta, which is produced by our bodies, but which form clumps in the brain in sufferers of Alzheimer’s, which then also stimulate the immune system. James has generated new kinds of antibodies that can remove these plaques, without causing a lot of inflammation, by changing their structure so that they have less inflammatory potential.

A visual representation of how amyloid plaques prevent neurons from communicating
A visual representation of how amyloid plaques prevent neurons from communicating

In the lab, it is possible to look in more depth at the mechanisms involved. Jessica explains, “We know that if you have an infection, immune cells in the brain, called microglia, are stimulated, and they release cytokines, cell signalling proteins which are pro-inflammatory, and have an effect on the brain. When this happens to amyloid-beta plaques, they also inflame. We don’t know which is more important yet.” Finding a link to neurodegeneration, she says, is more difficult, because you need wide cognitive tests.

Jay Amin is a clinician, and he will be explaining what you can do with cognitive testing to see how well the brain is functioning. He uses this to see if infections are associated with early onset of dementia, linking the lab to real patients. Jay’s research is in looking at the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia. He is trying to understand how the immune system is involved in each, studying the blood and brains of patients to see whether there are pathological or physiological differences, and whether it is possible to predict how fast it might progress.

Jessica’s background is in immunology – she did her undergraduate degree and PhD in Amsterdam, where she worked in a blood bank, using blood to look at the immune system and see how they worked together. Then she worked on antibodies developed from blood given to patients with immune deficiency and autoimmune diseases, before moving to work for a company making antibodies for cancer treatment. She came to Southampton in 2004 to work in cancer immunology, but decided she preferred to work in inflammation biology; she learned about the brain and now combines all of these areas, looking at inflammation, and antibodies, in the brain and the body. She says “I think it’s fascinating to know how the body works, why it goes wrong, what happens as we age, how the immune system is altered when we get diseases. And there is so much to learn about the brain, we’re still learning all the time”

Jessica says that her typical day involves going to work at Southampton General Hospital, having lab meetings to discuss progress, problems, interesting findings and other new literature, then checking emails to see whether there are collaborators to reply to, in the UK or in Holland, before cycling to Highfield campus to meet students or give lectures, and eventually going home to walk her two dogs! She also adds “I hope people find the event useful and exciting, we’ll have some surprises – you’ll have to come to find out what!”

You can see Jessica, James and Jay at the Juniper Berry on Tuesday 19th May by booking tickets here

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Physics student and regular freelance science communicator, shooting for the stars. I'm your Science Editor and with the help of a team of talented writers, strive to bring you the most interesting and relevant science stories.

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