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By creating novel maps of the brain that connect inflammation with behavior, FAU neuroscientists can better understand diseases like Parkinson’s, arthritis and mood disorders, according to Ning Quan, Ph.D., and director of the Program in Neuroimmunology and Glial Biology (PNGB).

If you have an immunological problem like arthritis, you may not necessarily need to treat the white blood cells of immune system, but rather your autonomic nervous system, he said. “Conversely, if you have depression or anxiety issues, maybe the more effective treatment is not to change your neurotransmitter, but to dampen down inflammation in your brain.”

This research is at the heart of a mapping project where Quan and other FAU collaborators will study areas of the brain that control learning, memory and mood and document how specific receptors, called cytokine interleukin-1 (IL-1) invite — rather than suppress — inflammation, said Quan, adding that the mapping project is part of a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Previous studies have shown that elevated levels of IL-1 receptors are the link between brain inflammation and mental disorders, but not how, said Quan, co-investigator on the grant and professor of biomedical science in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. So, that’s the goal for Quan and his team — to figure out how those receptors affect neurons and how the receptor signals to induce the changes related to these psychopathologies.

To investigate that question, the team will first map out where the receptors occur in the brain, which has never been done before, Quan said. Then, by examining inflammation’s role in changing behavior in mouse models, they can examine the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which this happens.

The PNGB builds on recent developments in psychoneuroimmunology, a multidisciplinary field that explores how the immune system activates the nervous system and produces psychological disease states and changes in behavior, he said. It also encompasses the study of brain cancer, brain trauma and fundamental brain mechanisms that do not involve psychiatric disease, as well as basic research into glial cells, which modulate neural signals.

The ultimate goal, Quan said, is to find unexpected ways to treat both immunological problems and psychopathological disorders.