Hidden behind the blood brain and blood CSF barriers, the nervous system is often considered an area of immune privilege, lacking the surveillance system that guards the rest of our bodies against infection. However, the reviews in this series reveal that the immune and nervous systems are actually inextricably linked. In addition to physical connections, the two systems share common signaling molecules and pathways, and the mechanics of cell-cell interactions in both systems are remarkably similar. Disturbance of the immune system of the brain is linked to important human conditions like multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s Disease, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Cover image credit: Photo Researchers
Neurobiologists and immunologists study concepts often signified with identical terminology. Scientists in both fields study a structure known as the synapse, and each group analyzes a subject called memory. Is this a quirk of human language, or are there real similarities between these two physiological systems? Not only are the linguistic concepts expressed in the words “synapse” and “memory” shared between the fields, but the actual molecules of physiologic importance in one system play parallel roles in the other: complement, the major histocompatibility molecules, and even “neuro”-transmitters all have major impacts on health and on disease in both the brain and the immune system. Not only are the same molecules found in diverse roles in each system, but we have learned that there is real “hard-wired” crosstalk between nerves and lymphoid organs. This issue of the JCI highlights some of the lessons learned from experts who are working at this scintillating intersection between immunology and neuroscience.
Immunological and neural synapses share properties such as the synaptic cleft, adhesion molecules, stability, and polarity. However, the mismatch in scale has limited the utility of these comparisons. The discovery of phosphatase micro-exclusion from signaling elements in immunological synapses and innate phagocytic synapses define a common functional unit at a common sub-micron scale across synapse types. Bundling of information from multiple antigen receptor microclusters by an immunological synapse has parallels to bundling of multiple synaptic inputs into a single axonal output by neurons, allowing integration and coincidence detection. Bonafide neuroimmune synapses control the inflammatory reflex. A better understanding of the shared mechanisms between immunological and neural synapses could aid in the development of new therapeutic modalities for immunological, neurological, and neuroimmunological disorders alike.
Michael L. Dustin
While immune responses in neurodegeneration were regarded as little more than a curiosity a decade ago, they are now increasingly moving toward center stage. Factors driving this movement include the recognition that most of the relevant immune molecules are produced within the brain, that microglia are proficient immune cells shaping neuronal circuitry and fate, and that systemic immune responses affect brain function. We will review this complex field from the perspective of neurons, extra-neuronal brain cells, and the systemic environment and highlight the possibility that cell intrinsic innate immune molecules in neurons may function in neurodegenerative processes.
Eva Czirr, Tony Wyss-Coray
Immune responses in the CNS are common, despite its perception as a site of immune privilege. These responses can be mediated by resident microglia and astrocytes, which are innate immune cells without direct counterparts in the periphery. Furthermore, CNS immune reactions often take place in virtual isolation from the innate/adaptive immune interplay that characterizes peripheral immunity. However, microglia and astrocytes also engage in significant cross-talk with CNS-infiltrating T cells and other components of the innate immune system. Here we review the cellular and molecular basis of innate immunity in the CNS and discuss what is known about how outcomes of these interactions can lead to resolution of infection, neurodegeneration, or neural repair depending on the context.
Richard M. Ransohoff, Melissa A. Brown
Tissues of the CNS, such as the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord, may be affected by a range of insults including genetic, autoimmune, infectious, or neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. The immune system is involved in the pathogenesis of many of these, either by causing tissue damage or alternatively by responding to disease and contributing to repair. It is clearly vital that cells of the immune system patrol the CNS and protect against infection. However, in contrast to other tissues, damage caused by immune pathology in the CNS can be irreparable. The nervous and immune systems have, therefore, coevolved to permit effective immune surveillance while limiting immune pathology. Here we will consider aspects of adaptive immunity in the CNS and the retina, both in the context of protection from infection as well as cancer and autoimmunity, while focusing on immune responses that compromise health and lead to significant morbidity.
David C. Wraith, Lindsay B. Nicholson
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a multifocal demyelinating disease with progressive neurodegeneration caused by an autoimmune response to self-antigens in a genetically susceptible individual. While the formation and persistence of meningeal lymphoid follicles suggest persistence of antigens to drive the continuing inflammatory and humoral response, the identity of an antigen or infectious agent leading to the oligoclonal expansion of B and T cells is unknown. In this review we examine new paradigms for understanding the immunopathology of MS, present recent data defining the common genetic variants underlying disease susceptibility, and explore how improved understanding of immune pathway disruption can inform MS prognosis and treatment decisions.
Alyssa Nylander, David A. Hafler