Get a simple cut on the finger or a bump on the head, and the body’s immune system rushes in to heal the area. Inflammation of this sort is a normal response to injuries or infections; but when inflammation occurs in the brain – particularly the developing brain of a child – it can lead to serious complications and have a life-long impact.
“We’re investigating the causes of inflammation in the brain to shed light on how a process that heals can sometimes cause harm,” says Dr. Peter van den Elzen, an investigator and pathologist with BC Children’s Hospital, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority, and an assistant professor with the University of British Columbia.
“By figuring out what’s happening at the molecular level, we hope to contribute to the development of new treatments that could keep the harmful aspects of inflammation in check,” says Dr. van den Elzen. “This could protect kids’ brains from dangerous complications from injuries like concussions and brain-based diseases like multiple sclerosis.”
In a recent study published in The Journal of Immunology, Dr. van den Elzen investigated the role of a molecule called sulfatide, an abundant fat located in the brain and spinal cord. Sulfatides don’t interact with the immune system because they are contained by the blood-brain barrier, so the body’s immune system isn’t aware of their existence. The blood-brain barrier separates the blood circulating in the body from the brain’s own fluids.
Dr. van den Elzen and his team found that when the blood-brain barrier breaks down due to disease or injury, the immune system reacts to sulfatides from the brain as if they are a foreign virus or bacteria and attack, causing inflammation.
“The immune response to sulfatides could explain why inflammation and unwanted immune activity may cause further damage to the brain when the blood-brain barrier is breached,” says Dr. Peter van den Elzen.
The next phase of this research is to look specifically at patients with brain injuries – particularly multiple sclerosis and concussion patients – to see when and if immune cells are activated, how this changes the immune system and causes damage to the brain.
Children and youth can take longer than adults to recover from brain injuries. These injuries can cause lasting symptoms and permanently change the way a child talks, walks, learns, and interacts with others.
Dr. van den Elzen’s research has been supported by funding from the Canadian Institute for Health Research, Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, National Multiple Sclerosis Society and Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.
- Dr. Peter van den Elzen, Hematopathologist and former Medical Director of Diagnostic Immunology and Investigator, BC Children’s Hospital, and Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology, University of British Columbia
- Dr. William Panenka, Investigator, BC Children’s Hospital, and Assistant Professor, Division of Neurology, Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia
- Dr. Jessica Tuengel, Doctoral Student, Gantt Research Team, BC Children’s Hospital, and Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of British Columbia
- Dr. Dong Jun Zheng, Lab Manager, van den Elzen and Gantt Research Teams, BC Children’s Hospital, and Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of British Columbia