The seventh sense: Long thought to be divorced from the brain, the immune system turns out to be intimately involved in its functioning

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debate

Abstract

Fordecades anatomy textbooks taught that the two most complicated systems in the body—the brain and the immune system—existed in almost complete isolation from each other. By all accounts, the brain focused on the business of operating the body, and the immune system focused on defending it. In healthy individuals, the twain never met. Only in certain cases of disease or trauma did cells from the immune system enter the brain, and when they did so, it was to attack. But in recent years a rush of new findings has revolutionized scien-tists’ understanding of the two systems. Mounting evidence indicates that the brain and the immune system interact routinely, both in sickness and in health. The immune system can help support an injured brain, for example. It also plays a role in helping the brain to cope with stress and aids such essential brain functions as learning and social behavior. What is more, the immune system might qualify as a kind of surveillance organ that detects microorganisms in and around the body and informs the brain about them, much as our eyes relay visual information and our ears transmit auditory signals. In other words, the brain and immune system do not just cross paths more often than previously thought—they are thoroughly entwined.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-35
Number of pages6
JournalScientific American
Volume319
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes

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