Tag: Brain science

Encephalitis: the rare disease with a million implications


22 February is World Encephalitis Day. Founded by The Encephalitis Society four years ago, it aims to help raise awareness of the disease on an international scale.

In a nutshell, encephalitis refers to the inflammation of the brain. Up until recently, it was thought that encephalitis was simply either a viral or bacterial infection. However, in 2005, research described a new version of the disease: auto-immune or ‘anti-NMDAR encephalitis’, which is caused by antibodies that attack the brain tissue. In all its forms, encephalitis is incredibly rare: herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE), for instance, affects approximately one in 1,000,000 children. Although there are clear treatment routes available, viral encephalitis is incredibly destructive. The virus can cause irreversible damage in the brain, which will continue to impact upon a patient’s quality of life well after their short-term recovery from the disease itself.

Despite its often devastating consequences, the rarity of encephalitis might raise some important questions for those hearing about the disease for the first time, namely: why should we spend our time researching something that affects so few people?

It’s crucial to acknowledge that just because something is rare, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important. I started working on herpes simplex encephalitis during my time as a postdoc, because it’s an incredibly useful paradigm for studying genetic disorders, and human genetics in general. Looking at cases of encephalitis can also tell us so much about human immune responses to infection. By investigating what has gone wrong in the body in these rare cases of encephalitis, we also learn more about which immune responses are essential to fighting diseases in the average person. Not only does our research into encephalitis allow us to better combat the disease itself, it also give us insights into the mechanisms at work in our body that help to protect the brain from infection and inflammation. We’re beginning to see that our findings have far-reaching implications for other neurological disorders that may be linked to encephalitis via a crossover of immune mechanisms.

With the relatively recent discovery of anti-NMDAR encephalitis, the field of autoimmune encephalitis has blossomed. Although my primary research is rooted in the viral, infectious type of the disease, we’re beginning to investigate its relationship to this newer form. I’m now working with Dr Ming Lim at the Evelina’s Children Hospital at King’s College London, and Dr Yael Hacohen at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health at UCL, to try and pinpoint whether there is a link between the two. More specifically, I’m interested in finding out if suffering from HSE means that a patient is more predisposed to developing autoimmune encephalitis further down the line. (more…)

Could gut hormones help make Dry January last all year?

After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, it has become fashionable for January to be promoted as a time for reassessment and resolutions. There are promises and attempts at living a healthier lifestyle, including stopping drinking alcohol (‘Dry January’), joining that gym, stopping smoking, and eating better. However, we know how difficult it is to maintain behaviour change over the longer term. People start drinking excessively again, put back on the weight they lose, start smoking again, and their attendance at the gym wanes. For people who have hazardous levels of drinking, and those who are dependent on alcohol, this is particularly problematic.

If people manage to stop drinking alcohol, we know that there are high relapse rates. In some studies, 60% of people with alcohol dependence have started drinking alcohol again after 6 months of abstinence. This is often precipitated by exposure to social events and situations where there is drinking, and stresses with family, job, and social circumstances. What is needed are strategies to help prevent relapse into drinking. While psychological and group support can be of benefit, there is also a potential role for medications to help reduce the craving for alcohol and the response to stress.

The Division of Brain Sciences in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London are currently running a research study in this area. We are investigating the potential benefit of a completely novel therapeutic strategy to prevent relapse in alcohol dependence. This is the ‘Gut Hormone in Addiction’ (GHADD) Study, funded by the Medical Research Council. This is targeting hormones from our guts, which can act on our brain to influence eating and addictive behaviours. (more…)

Alcohol Awareness Week: seeking a responsible alternative

Most of us are aware that chronic, heavy alcohol consumption and binge drinking leads to a plethora of health issues including liver damage and addiction. However, many of us are still unaware of the dangers associated with even moderate alcohol consumption or the cumulative effects that alcohol can have on our health. So just what are those regular trips to the pub, or the frequent cocktails after work really costing us?

Research into effects of alcohol provide a range of results. Some research (funded by the alcohol industry) has even been claimed to demonstrate that alcohol consumption is actually beneficial to our physiological health. Conversely the International Agency for Research into Cancer has demonstrated that the more alcohol you drink directly increases the risk of seven common cancers including: mouth, throat, oesophageal, larynx, breast, liver and bowel.

Similarly, new research published in the British Medical Journal has revealed a potential link between moderate drinking and shrinkage of the hippocampus, a brain region associated with memory. These results suggest a link between moderate alcohol consumption and a potentially permanent alteration in brain structure. (more…)