Researchers decoded specific signals the nervous system uses to communicate the body’s immune and inflammatory status to the brain. Understanding the “language” of the brain is a major step forward for bioelectronic medicine as it provides insight into diagnostic and therapeutic targets. The team hopes that future bioelectronic devices could replace drugs and reduce hamrful side effects.

Cytokines are one of the main regulators of our immune system. They signal the body when to attack a potential threat, and when to back off. Two cytokines that scientists looked at closely, interleukin 1β  (IL-1β) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF), specifically tell the brain to trigger inflammation. Experiments were performed on the vagus nerve in mice. This major nerve connects the brain to the body’s vital organs including the heart, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract.

Mapping the signals transmitted in the vagus is essential since they constitute the so-called “inflammatory reflex” that prevents diseases like sepsis, lupus, hypertension, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis from occurring. By identifying underlying neural pathways that regulate these diseases researchers could develop new bioelectronic remedies to treat disease and injury. Hence, patients could stop or greatly reduce the use of pharmaceuticals commonly associated with harmful side effects.

“We know from our previous studies that electrically stimulating the vagus nerve inhibits immune responses associated with different diseases,” said Dr. Chavan, associate professor at the Feinstein Institute and associate professor of molecular medicine at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. “In this study, we establish methods to record these signals transmitted in the vagus nerve.” said for Pharmabiz

Bioelectronic medicine seeks to treat disease by modifying the signals sent back and forth between nerves. In the past, it has shown promise for treating diseases like arthritis. Asthma patients could benefit from bioelectronic devices targeting the nerves that control constriction of airways. Treating inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, or obesity could be made easier by changing the firing pattern from the nerves to the gut. The same principle could work with cancer and ovaries to treat infertility. The list of promising opportunities goes on. Still, an incomplete map of the peripheral nerves that branch out from the brain and spinal cord, as well as the limitations of biomedical engineering, are holding back the progress.

“Our new methodology allows us to begin developing ways to decode the nervous system in such a way that we better understand how to detect and regulate inflammation,” said Dr. Silverman, one of the paper authors, for Feinstein Institute. “We can use this new understanding to develop devices that simultaneously diagnose and treat disease.”

The cytokines pathways identified in this study could help control how and when inflammation occurs. If the novel methods can alter other signaling pathways between nerves, they may be able to map out specific ways in which they communicate. Hopefully, one day scientists could fine-tune our bodies’ immune responses to any number of diseases.

“We will now use the neural decoding methods from this study to identify the neural signaling of a variety of medical conditions in future bioelectronic medicine studies. This is a key step to provide insights to engineer cutting-edge diagnostic and therapeutic devices,” said Dr. Zanos, lead author of the PNAS paper.

The current research is still far from changing the way we treat disease but these findings provide a new way to use the biological tools within our bodies to fight off disease more efficiently.

Watch the video below to learn more about the incredible possibilities of bioelectric medicine from neurosurgeon and immunologist Kevin Tracey:

By Andreja Gregoric, MSc