Quirks and Quarks

Probing the mind-body connection to learn how the brain controls immune responses

A new study found that a part of the brain called the insular cortex becomes active when inflammation arises in the body. Now, the researchers want to use molecular switches to control our inflammatory responses, helping people with conditions like IBS and psoriasis.

Study in mice shows how the brain remembers and can trigger past inflammatory responses

A study in mice has found that the brain might be able to remember and replay previous inflammatory responses in the body. If the findings hold in humans this mechanism could play a role in recurring inflammation such as irritable bowel syndrome or psoriasis. (Shutterstock / nuiza11)

The part of the brain involved in creating a mental self-image of the body can encode and remember past inflammatory immune responses, according to a new study in the journal Cell.

Previous studies have shown how the brain can be conditioned to create responses in the body. 

Examples include Pavlov's dogs, which were trained to associate a bell with dinner time, and salivated when the bell was rung, or the placebo effect, in which a fake treatment can have result in real beneficial effect.

To probe this mind-body connection, the researchers conducted a series of fascinating experiments in mice that revealed that the brain stores memories of specific immune responses to control inflammation in the body. 

Scientists mapped, in mice, the brain region that stores memories of past inflammatory responses and how its connected to specific sites in the body. File photo. (Shutterstock / javirozas)

Asya Rolls, an associate professor of neuroimmunology at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, oversaw the study. 

She and her colleagues found that the part of the brain called the insular cortex becomes active when inflammation arises in the body. Using molecular switches to turn neurons in the insular cortex on or off, they could recreate the same inflammatory response or damp it down. 

Rolls told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald that she hopes these findings will translate to humans to help individuals with recurring inflammatory conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome or psoriasis.

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting. Click on the link at the top of the page to hear the interview with Prof. Asya Rolls.