Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital July 5, 2016
Contributor: Francisco Quintana, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His research aims to outline the mechanisms that control the activity of the immune system, with the ultimate goal of identifying new therapies.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) are looking to the gut microbiome, a collection of microorganisms that live inside the intestines, for new treatment approaches and a potential cure for multiple sclerosis (MS).
In a recent study, the research team discovered that bacteria living in the gut may influence the activity of brain cells involved in controlling inflammation and neurodegeneration – key factors in the development and progression of MS. The team’s results, published in Nature Medicine, may point to potential therapeutic targets for patients with MS. Previous research has suggested a connection between the gut microbiome and brain inflammation. How the two are linked and how diet may influence this connection, however, has remained largely unknown.
“For the first time, we’ve been able to determine that food has some sort of remote control over central nervous system inflammation,” says Quintana, the senior investigator of the study. “What we eat enables bacteria in our gut to produce small chemicals, some of which are capable of traveling all the way to the brain.”
In a preclinical study of MS, Quintana and his colleagues found that when a greater number of molecules derived from dietary tryptophan (an amino acid famously found in turkey and other foods) were present, cells called astrocytes, which reside in the brain and spinal cord, were able to limit brain inflammation. Conversely, the team found decreased levels of these tryptophan-derived molecules in blood samples from patients with MS.
The team also is developing methods to target these mechanisms controlled by the microbiome to treat MS. “It appears that the presence or lack of certain dietary substances and the ability to move products to and from the gut may hold clues on new ways to treat this disease and perhaps cure MS altogether,” says Quintana.