Newswise — Recent studies indicate that the capacity of the immune system to react to spinal cord injuries decreases as individuals age. However, these findings also highlight potential strategies to enhance this response and facilitate the healing process for patients.

The latest discoveries provide valuable insights into the immune system's response to spinal cord injuries and shed light on the mechanisms behind its diminishing effectiveness as individuals age. Additionally, the research highlights the significant role played by the membranes surrounding the spinal cord in orchestrating the immune response to such injuries. Armed with this knowledge, medical professionals may eventually enhance the body's innate immune response to enhance patient outcomes, with a particular focus on older adults.

"In recent reports, it has been observed that a growing number of elderly individuals are suffering from spinal cord injuries. Our research indicates that the initiation and resolution of the immune response are compromised in the aging process compared to younger individuals," explained Andrea Francesca M. Salvador, a researcher who recently obtained her PhD from the University of Virginia School of Medicine. "We hope that our findings can aid in the identification of potential intervention points and druggable targets that can enhance the recovery process and address long-term consequences of the injury, such as chronic pain."

Understanding Spinal Cord Injuries

The consequences of spinal cord injuries can be profound and enduring, resulting in loss of mobility, impaired bowel control, and various complications such as pain, sexual dysfunction, or involuntary spasms, which can vary in severity depending on the location and extent of the injury. Gaining a deeper understanding of the body's response to spinal cord injuries is a critical stride towards the development of more effective treatment approaches for these conditions.

The recent findings stem from the research conducted by Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, whose groundbreaking discovery at UVA in 2015 revealed the existence of previously unknown vessels connecting the brain to the immune system. This astonishing revelation challenged the conventional belief that the brain was isolated from the immune system. The identification of these vessels within the meninges, the protective membranes surrounding the brain, not only revolutionized scientific knowledge but also paved the way for extensive exploration in the field of neuroimmunology. Today, the study of the intricate relationship between the nervous and immune systems, known as neuroimmunology, stands as a prominent and rapidly advancing field of neuroscience research. It holds tremendous potential to revolutionize our comprehension of various neurological diseases and significantly enhance our capacity to treat them effectively.

Salvador, Kipnis, and their team have recently unveiled the crucial involvement of the meninges encompassing the spinal cord in the immune response to spinal cord injuries. Their investigations unveiled the existence of previously unidentified meningeal lymphatic "patches" that form above the injury site. Although further research is necessary to fully comprehend the functions of these structures, their formation strongly indicates the significant role played by the spinal cord meninges in orchestrating the immune response to such injuries.

Moreover, Salvador and her colleagues conducted a quantitative analysis of the immune cell response to spinal cord injuries. Their findings revealed a notably more robust response in young laboratory mice compared to older ones, indicating the potential for scientists to target specific immune cells as a means to enhance recovery following such injuries.

Collectively, these discoveries highlight the spinal cord meninges and their interactions with other elements of the central nervous system as promising and intriguing domains for further investigation. Researchers can delve into these areas to gain a deeper understanding of the intricate and multifaceted response of the body to spinal cord injuries.

"This finding is truly exciting and holds the potential to pave the way for novel therapeutic strategies in the treatment of spinal cord injury patients," stated Kipnis, who currently serves as a professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and directs the Brain Immunology and Glia Center (BIG Center) there. "We are currently collaborating with clinicians to gain a better understanding of the implications of our findings in human patients and explore how they can be translated into tangible advancements that can truly make a difference."

Findings Published

The researchers have published their findings in the scientific journal Neuron. The team consisted of Salvador, Taitea Dykstra, Justin Rustenhoven, Wenqing Gao, Susan M. Blackburn, Kesshni Bhasiin, Michael Q. Dong, Rafaela Mano Guimarães, Sriharsha Gonuguntla, Igor Smirnov, Kipnis and Jasmin Herz. The researchers report no financial interests in the work.

The research was supported by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Research Fellowship and by the National Institutes of Health, grants AT010416, AG034113, NS096967 and AG057496.

Journal Link: Neuron