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Study Shows Interaction Between Nervous and Immune Systems Occurs In Fatal Lung Infections

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When the body is fighting infection, the immune system kicks into high gear. But emerging evidence hints at the involvement of another, a rather surprising player in this process: the nervous system.

New research from Harvard Medical School, conducted in mice, shows just how the interaction between the nervous and the immune systems occurs in deadly lung infections—a tantalizing clue into a complex interplay between two systems traditionally viewed as disconnected.

The findings, published March 5 in Nature Medicine, reveal that neurons carrying nerve signals to and from the lungs suppress immune response during infection with Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that is growing increasingly impervious to antibiotics and has emerged as a top killer of hospitalized patients, who are often immunocompromised and weakened overall.

The results, the researchers said, suggest that targeting the nervous system could be one way to boost immunity and can set the stage for the development of nonantibiotic approaches to treat recalcitrant bacterial infections.

“With the rapid emergence of drug-resistant organisms, such as methicillin-resistant Staph aureus, nonantibiotic approaches to treating bacterial infections are sorely needed,” said senior study investigator Isaac Chiu, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard Medical School.

“Targeting the nervous system to modulate immunity and treat or prevent these infections could be one such strategy.”

Sensory neurons play a protective role by sensing adverse stimuli and alerting the body that something is awry. In the lungs, the neurons’ projections detect mechanical pressure, inflammation, temperature changes and the presence of chemical irritants, then send an alert to the brain—a notification that can come in the form of pain, airway constriction or a cough that expels harmful agents or particles from the airways.

But the new study reveals that when mouse lungs are invaded by staph bacteria, these guardian neurons interfere with the organ’s ability to cope with infection. Specifically, they reduce the lungs’ ability to summon several types of disease-fighting cells in response to infection. A series of experiments conducted in mice revealed that disabling these neurons promoted immune cell recruitment, increased the lungs’ ability to clear bacteria and boosted survival in staph-infected mice.

The results, the researchers said, suggest that different classes of sensory neurons may be involved in restraining or promoting immune response. Another possibility is that certain pathogens may have evolved to hijack and exploit an immunosuppressive pathway to their benefit—a survival mechanism for some classes of infectious bacteria, said study co-author Stephen Liberles, professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School.

The team’s interest in the crosstalk between the immune and nervous systems stems from recent work conducted by Chiu and colleagues. Chiu’s earlier research showed that when nerve cells detect bacterial invaders, they produce pain during infection. Other research has revealed nervous system involvement in animal models of allergic asthma.

The team suspected that nerve cells would play a protective role in bacterial infections by boosting immune response to shield the lungs, but the experiments revealed the exact opposite. Much to their surprise, the scientists found that neurons dampened lung immunity and worsened outcomes in mice with bacterial pneumonia.

To determine how nerve cells affect immunity, the scientists genetically or chemically disabled lung neurons and then compared the activity of several types of immune cells involved in infection protection. They also monitored animal survival and took physiological measures such as body temperature and number of bacteria in the lungs.

In an initial set of experiments, researchers injected mice—half with intact neurons and half with chemically disabled neurons—with drug-resistant staph bacteria. Compared with mice with intact nerve receptors, mice with disabled neurons controlled their body temperatures better, harbored 10 times fewer bacteria in their lungs 12 hours after the infection and were markedly more capable of overcoming and surviving the infection. Sixteen of 20 mice with intact neurons succumbed to the infection. By contrast, 17 of 18 mice with disabled neurons survived.

The lungs of mice with genetically or chemically disabled neurons were also better at recruiting neutrophils—the body’s pathogen-fighting troops that provide first responses during infections by devouring disease-causing bacteria. These mice summoned nearly twice as many infection-curbing neutrophils as did mice with intact neurons. But neutrophils in these animals were not simply more numerous. They were also more agile and more efficient in their performance. As a measure of agility, researchers compared how well neutrophils in both groups managed to patrol lung blood capillaries—a key ability that allows these cells to scan for the presence of disease-causing pathogens. Neutrophils in animals with chemically disabled neurons crawled farther, covering greater distances. They were also stickier and thus more capable of adhering to the walls of blood vessels, the site of their pathogen-gobbling action.

“We observed a striking difference in neutrophil presence and behavior between the two groups,” said Pankaj Baral, a research fellow in microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard Medical School and first author on the study.

“Neutrophils in mice with disabled neurons were simply better at doing their job.”

Additionally, mice with disabled neurons marshaled more efficiently several types of cytokines, signaling proteins that regulate inflammation, infection and bacterial clearance. In animals with disabled neurons, the levels of these inflammatory cells ramped up and subsided much faster, indicating that these mice were capable of mounting a more rapid immune response in the early stages of infection.

Conversely, mice with intact neurons showed suppressed function in a class of protective immune cells known as gamma delta T cells, a type of protective white blood cell found mostly in barrier tissues that line a variety of organs, including the lungs.

A final set of experiments revealed just how neurons suppressed immunity. The researchers observed that an immune signaling molecule released locally by neurons—a neuropeptide known as CGRP—was markedly increased in mice with intact neuron receptors during infection but absent in mice with disabled neurons. Researchers observed that the release of this molecule interfered with the lungs’ ability to summon immunoprotective neutrophils, cytokines and gamma delta T cells. Experiments in lab dishes revealed that CGRP disrupted immune cells’ ability to kill bacteria. When researchers blocked the production of CGRP in live animals infected with staph, these mice showed an enhanced ability to fight infection.

Taken together, these findings show that lung neurons enable the release of CGRP during lung infections and that blocking the activity of CGRP improves survival in bacterial pneumonia.

“The traditional delineation between nervous and immune systems is getting blurry and our findings underscore the idea that these two systems cross-talk to regulate each other’s function,” Chiu said. “As we move forward, immunologists should think more about the role of the nervous system, and neuroscientists should think more about the immune system.”

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Paternal Transmission Of Epigenetic Memory Via Sperm

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Studies of human populations and animal models suggest that a father’s experiences such as diet or environmental stress can influence the health and development of his descendants. How these effects are transmitted across generations, however, remains mysterious.

Susan Strome’s lab at UC Santa Cruz has been making steady progress in unraveling the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, using a tiny roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans to show how marks on chromosomes that affect gene expression, called “epigenetic” marks, can be transmitted from parents to offspring. Her team’s most recent paper, published October 17 in Nature Communications, focuses on transmission of epigenetic marks by C. elegans sperm.

In addition to documenting the transmission of epigenetic memory by sperm, the new study shows that the epigenetic information delivered by sperm to the embryo is both necessary and sufficient to guide proper development of germ cells in the offspring (germ cells give rise to eggs and sperm).

“We decided to look at C. elegans because it is such a good model for asking epigenetic questions using powerful genetic approaches,” said Strome, a distinguished professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology.

Epigenetic changes do not alter the DNA sequences of genes, but instead involve chemical modifications to either the DNA itself or the histone proteins with which DNA is packaged in the chromosomes. These modifications influence gene expression, turning genes on or off in different cells and at different stages of development. The idea that epigenetic modifications can cause changes in gene expression that are transmitted from one generation to the next, known as “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance,” is now the focus of intense scientific investigation.

For many years, it was thought that sperm do not retain any histone packaging and therefore could not transmit histone-based epigenetic information to offspring. Recent studies, however, have shown that about 10 percent of histone packaging is retained in both human and mouse sperm.

“Furthermore, where the chromosomes retain histone packaging of DNA is in developmentally important regions, so those findings raised awareness of the possibility that sperm may transmit important epigenetic information to embryos,” Strome said.

When her lab looked at C. elegans sperm, they found the sperm genome fully retains histone packaging. Other researchers had found the same is true for another commonly studied organism, the zebrafish.

“Like zebrafish, worms represent an extreme form of histone retention by sperm, which makes them a great system to see if this packaging really matters,” Strome said.

Her lab focused on a particular epigenetic mark (designated H3K27me3) that has been well established as a mark of repressed gene expression in a wide range of organisms. The researchers found that removing this mark from sperm chromosomes causes the majority of the offspring to be sterile. Having established that the mark is important, they wanted to see if it is sufficient to guide normal germline development.

The researchers addressed this by analyzing a mutant worm in which the chromosomes from sperm and egg are separated in the first cell division after fertilization, so that one cell of the embryo inherits only sperm chromosomes and the other cell inherits only egg chromosomes (normally, each cell of an embryo inherits chromosomes from both egg and sperm). This unusual chromosome segregation pattern allowed the researchers to generate worms whose germ line inherited only sperm chromosomes and therefore only sperm epigenetic marks. Those worms turned out to be fertile and to have normal gene expression patterns.

“These findings show that the DNA packaging in sperm is important, because offspring that did not inherit normal sperm epigenetic marks were sterile, and it is sufficient for normal germline development,” Strome said.

While the study shows that epigenetic information transmitted by sperm is important for normal development, it does not directly address how the life experience of a father can affect the health of his descendants. Strome’s lab is investigating this question with experiments in which worms are treated with alcohol or starved before reproducing.

“The goal is to analyze how the chromatin packaging changes in the parent,” she said.

“Whatever gets passed on to the offspring has to go through the germ cells. We want to know which cells experience the environmental factors, how they transmit that information to the germ cells, what changes in the germ cells, and how that impacts the offspring.”

By demonstrating the importance of epigenetic information carried by sperm, the current study establishes that if the environment experienced by the father changes the epigenetics of sperm chromosomes, it could affect the offspring.

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Father’s Nicotine Use Can Cause Cognitive Problems In Children And Grandchildren

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A father’s exposure to nicotine may cause cognitive deficits in his children and even grandchildren, according to a study in mice publishing on October 16 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Pradeep Bhide of Florida State University in Tallahassee and colleagues. The effect, which was not caused by direct secondhand exposure, may be due to epigenetic changes in key genes in the father’s sperm.

Exposure of mothers to nicotine and other components of cigarette smoke is recognized as a significant risk factor for behavioral disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, (or ADHD) in multiple generations of descendants. Whether the same applies to fathers has been less clear, in part because in human studies it has been difficult to separate genetic factors (such as a genetic predisposition to ADHD) from environmental factors, such as direct exposure to cigarette smoke.

To overcome this difficulty, Deirdre McCarthy, Pradeep Bhide and colleagues exposed male mice to low-dose nicotine in their drinking water during the stage of life in which the mice produce sperm. They then bred these mice with females that had never been exposed to nicotine. While the fathers were behaviorally normal, both sexes of offspring displayed hyperactivity, attention deficit, and cognitive inflexibility. When female (but not male) mice from this generation were bred with nicotine-naïve mates, male offspring displayed fewer, but still significant, deficits in cognitive flexibility. Analysis of spermatozoa from the original nicotine-exposed males indicated that promoter regions of multiple genes had been epigenetically modified, including the dopamine D2 gene, critical for brain development and learning, suggesting that these modifications likely contributed to the cognitive deficits in the descendants.

Nicotine and cigarette smoke have been previously shown to cause widespread epigenetic changes, Bhide said.

“The fact that men smoke more than women makes the effects in males especially important from a public health perspective. Our findings underscore the need for more research on the effects of smoking by the father, rather than just the mother, on the health of their children.”

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Nutrition Has A Greater Impact On Bone Strength Than Exercise

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ANN ARBOR—One question that scientists and fitness experts alike would love to answer is whether exercise or nutrition has a bigger positive impact on bone strength. University of Michigan researchers looked at mineral supplementation and exercise in mice, and found surprising results–nutrition has a greater impact on bone mass and strength than exercise. Further, even after the exercise training stopped, the mice retained bone strength gains as long as they ate a mineral-supplemented diet.

“The longer-term mineral-supplemented diet leads to not only increases in bone mass and strength, but the ability to maintain those increases even after detraining,” said David Kohn, a U-M professor in the schools of dentistry and engineering.

“This was done in mice, but if you think about the progression to humans, diet is easier for someone to carry on as they get older and stop exercising, rather than the continuation of exercise itself.”

The second important finding is that the diet alone has beneficial effects on bone, even without exercising. This surprised Kohn, who expected exercise with a normal diet to fuel greater gains in bone strength, but that wasn’t the case.

“The data suggests the long-term consumption of the mineral-supplemented diet could be beneficial in preventing the loss of bone and strength with age, even if you don’t do exercise training,” he said.

Combining the two amplifies the effect.

Most other studies look at effects of increasing dietary calcium, Kohn said. The U-M study increased calcium and phosphorous, and found benefits to increasing both.

This isn’t to suggest that people run out and buy calcium and phosphorus supplements, Kohn said. The findings don’t translate directly from mice to humans, but they do give researchers a conceptual place to start.

It’s known that humans achieve peak bone mass in their early 20s, and after that it declines. The question becomes how to maximize the amount of bone when young, so that when declines do begin, people start from a better position, Kohn said.

In addition to testing bone mass and strength, Kohn and colleagues performed a full battery of mechanical assessments on the bone, which is important because the amount of bone doesn’t always scale with or predict the mechanical quality of the tissue.

They tested the mice after eight weeks of training and supplemented diet or normal diet, and then after eight weeks of detraining.

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