Up to 75 percent of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus — an incurable autoimmune disease commonly known as lupus — experience neuropsychiatric symptoms. But so far, our understanding of the mechanisms underlying lupus’ effects on the brain has remained murky. Now, new research from Boston Children’s Hospital has shed light on the mystery and points to a potential new drug for protecting the brain from the neuropsychiatric effects of lupus and other central nervous system (CNS) diseases. The team has published its surprising findings in Nature.
“In general, lupus patients commonly have a broad range of neuropsychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, headaches, seizures, even psychosis,” says Allison Bialas, PhD, first author on the study and a research fellow working in the lab of Michael Carroll, PhD, senior author on the study, who are part of the Boston Children’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. “But their cause has not been clear — for a long time it wasn’t even appreciated that these were symptoms of the disease.
Collectively, lupus’ neuropsychiatric symptoms are known as central nervous system (CNS) lupus. Carroll’s team wondered if changes in the immune system in lupus patients were directly causing these symptoms from a pathological standpoint.
“How does chronic inflammation affect the brain?”
Lupus, which affects at least 1.5 million Americans, causes the immune systems to attack the body’s tissues and organs. This causes the body’s white blood cells to release type 1 interferon-alpha, a small cytokine protein that acts as a systemic alarm, triggering a cascade of additional immune activity as it binds with receptors in different tissues.