Protecting the brain from infection may start with a gut reaction

Some immune defenses of the brain may have their roots in the gut.

A new study in mice finds that immune cells are first trained in the gut to recognize and launch attacks on pathogens, and then migrate to the brain’s surface to protect it, researchers report online November 4 in Nature. These cells were also found in surgically removed parts of human brains.

Every minute, around 750 milliliters of blood flow through the brain, giving bacteria, viruses or other blood-borne pathogens an opportunity to infect the organ. For the most part, the invaders are kept out by three membrane layers, called the meninges, which wrap around the brain and spinal cord and act as a physical barrier. If a pathogen does manage to breach that barrier, the researchers say, the immune cells trained in the gut are ready to attack by producing a battalion of antibodies.

The most common route for a pathogen to end up in the bloodstream is from the gut. “So, it makes perfect sense for these [immune cells] to be educated, trained and selected to recognize things that are present in the gut,” says Menna Clatworthy, an immunologist at the University of Cambridge.

Clatworthy’s team found antibody-producing plasma cells in the leathery meninges, which lie between the brain and skull, in both mice and humans. These immune cells produced a class of antibodies called immunoglobulin A, or IgA.

These cells and antibodies are mainly found in the inner lining of the gut and lungs, so the scientists wondered if the cells on the brain had any link to the gut. It turned out that there was: Germ-free mice, which had no microbes in their guts, didn’t have any plasma cells in their meninges either. However, when bacteria from the poop of other mice and humans were transplanted into the mice’s intestines, their gut microbiomes were restored, and the plasma cells then appeared in the meninges.

“This was a powerful demonstration of how important the gut could be at determining what is found in the meninges,” Clatworthy says.

Researchers captured microscope images of an attack in the meninges of mice that was led by plasma cells that had likely been trained in the guts. When the team implanted a pathogenic fungus, commonly found in the intestine, into the mice’s bloodstream, the fungus attempted to enter the brain through the walls of blood vessels in the meninges. However, plasma cells in the membranes formed a mesh made of IgA antibodies around the pathogen, blocking its entry. The plasma cells are found along the blood vessels, Clatworthy says, where they can quickly launch an attack on pathogens.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has shown the presence of plasma cells in the meninges. The study has rewritten the paradigm of what we know about these plasma cells and how they play a critical role in keeping our brain healthy,” says Matthew Hepworth, an immunologist at the University of Manchester in England who was not involved with the study. More research is needed to classify how many of the plasma cells in the meninges come from the gut, he says.

The finding adds to growing evidence that gut microbes can play a role in brain diseases. A previous study, for instance, suggested that in mice, boosting a specific gut bacterium could help fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a fatal neurological disease that results in paralysis (SN: 7/22/19). And while the new study found the plasma cells in the brains of healthy mice, previous research has found other gut-trained cells in the brains of mice with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease of the brain and the spinal cord.

For now, the researchers want to understand what cues plasma cells follow in the guts to know it is time for them to embark on a journey to the brain.

With Theta, 2020 sets the record for most named Atlantic storms

It’s official: 2020 now has the most named storms ever recorded in the Atlantic in a single year.

On November 9, a tropical disturbance brewing in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean gained enough strength to become a subtropical storm. With that, Theta became the year’s 29th named storm, topping the 28 that formed in 2005.

With maximum sustained winds near 110 kilometers per hour as of November 10, Theta is expected to churn over the open ocean for several days. It’s too early to predict Theta’s ultimate strength and trajectory, but forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say they expect the storm to weaken later in the week.

If so, like most of the storms this year, Theta likely won’t become a major hurricane. That track record might be the most surprising thing about this season — there’s been a record-breaking number of storms, but overall they’ve been relatively weak. Only five — Laura, Teddy, Delta, Epsilon and Eta — have become major hurricanes with winds topping 178 kilometers per hour, although only Laura and Eta made landfall near the peak of their strength as Category 4 storms.

Even so, the 2020 hurricane season started fast, with the first nine storms arriving earlier than ever before (SN: 9/7/20). And the season has turned out to be the most active since naming began in 1953, thanks to warmer-than-usual water in the Atlantic and the arrival of La Niña, a regularly-occurring period of cooling in the Pacific, which affects winds in the Atlantic and helps hurricanes form (SN: 9/21/19). If a swirling storm reaches wind speeds of 63 kilometers per hour, it gets a name from a list of 21 predetermined names. When that list runs out, the storm gets a Greek letter.

While the wind patterns and warm Atlantic water temperatures set the stage for the string of storms, it’s unclear if climate change is playing a role in the number of storms. As the climate warms, though, you would expect to see more of the destructive, high-category storms, says Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT. “And this year is not a poster child for that.” So far, no storm in 2020 has been stronger than a Category 4. The 2005 season had multiple Category 5 storms, including Hurricane Katrina (SN: 12/20/05).

There’s a lot amount of energy in the ocean and atmosphere this year, including the unusually warm water, says Emanuel. “The fuel supply could make a much stronger storm than we’ve seen,” says Emanuel, “so the question is: What prevents a lot of storms from living up to their potential?”
A major factor is wind shear, a change in the speed or direction of wind at different altitudes. Wind shear “doesn’t seem to have stopped a lot of storms from forming this year,” Emanuel says, “but it inhibits them from getting too intense.” Hurricanes can also create their own wind shear, so when multiple hurricanes form in close proximity, they can weaken each other, Emanuel says. And at times this year, several storms did occupy the Atlantic simultaneously — on September 14, five storms swirled at once.

It’s not clear if seeing hurricane season run into the Greek alphabet is a “new normal,” says Emanuel. The historical record, especially before the 1950s is spotty, he says, so it’s hard to put this year’s record-setting season into context. It’s possible that there were just as many storms before naming began in the ‘50s, but that only the big, destructive ones were recorded or noticed. Now, of course, forecasters have the technology to detect all of them, “so I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape about this season,” Emanuel says.

Some experts are hesitant to even use the term “new normal.”

“People talk about the ‘new normal,’ and I don’t think that is a good phrase,” says James Done, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. “It implies some new stable state. We’re certainly not in a stable state — things are always changing.”