Gut microbes prime immune cells called microglia to protect the brain and nervous system from neurological damage due to viral infections, according to new research in mice.
The findings suggest that maintaining a healthy and diverse microbiota — the population of bacteria, fungi, and viruses within the body, especially the gut — is key to efficiently clear viruses in the nervous system, and to prevent the disease-related changes that mark multiple sclerosis (MS) and other disorders, the investigators said.
The study, “The microbiota protects from viral-induced neurologic damage through microglia-intrinsic TLR signaling,” was published in the journal eLife, and conducted by researchers at University of Utah School of Medicine.
Viral infections in the central nervous system (CNS) are considered a potential cause of MS and other diseases. Such infections usually target CNS cells, which makes the work of virus-specific lymphocytes more difficult. These immune cells need to eliminate the virus while limiting possible long-term consequences to the host, like excessive inflammation.
According to the team, a better understanding of antiviral defenses may lead to more effective therapies to prevent or treat neurologic disorders like MS.
Increasing evidence suggests that microbiota in the gut impact microglia, a type of glial cell that acts as a first defender against infectious agents across the brain and spinal cord. Research has also indicated that gut microbes may influence viral infections, though results here are contradictory.
As different viruses can be associated with distinct effects of intestinal microbiota, the scientists focused on the mouse hepatitis virus that rapidly leads to alterations similar to those of MS, including loss of myelin — the insulating layer of nerve fibers.
“We wanted to investigate whether gut microbes could alter the immune response to a virus in the central nervous system, and whether this affects the amount of damage the virus causes,” David Garrett Brown, a graduate research assistant in the department of pathology at University of Utah Health, and the study’s first author, said in a press release.
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