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The Making of Medicine

These Brain Cleaners are, Unexpectedly, Healers

Immune cells in the brain that remove damaged material after epilepsy seizures may not just be cleaners but healers, according to a nifty new finding from our Ukpong B. Eyo, PhD, and colleagues.

Professor Eyo, of the Department of Neuroscience and the UVA Brain Institute, used high-powered imaging to check out the activity of immune cells called microglia in the brain after experimental models of epilepsy seizures. Turns out the microglia weren't just hauling away debris. Instead, they appeared to tend damaged neurons.

They did this by forming little pouches the scientists have dubbed “microglial process pouches.” These pouches didn’t swallow up damaged material, as many immune cells do. Instead, they stuck around for hours. We're not fully clear on exactly what is happening, but the end result was beneficial: The dendrites they targeted ended up looking better and healthier than those they didn't.

This points the scientists to a tantalizing possibility: If we can harness and enhance this natural healing process, we may be able to use it as a new treatment for seizure-related brain injuries. That would be great news for the third of epilepsy patients who don't respond to seizure-preventing drugs.

“Although these findings are exciting, there is yet a lot to follow up on them. For example, the precise mechanisms that regulate the interactions remain to be identified. Moreover, at present, the ‘healing’ feature is suggested from correlational results, and more definitive studies are required to certify the nature of the ‘healing,’” Professor Eyo said. “If these questions can be answered, they will provide a rationale for developing approaches to enhance this process … in seizure contexts.”

To read more about Professor Eyo's microglia work, check out this UVA Today story.

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