Feinstein researcher makes breakthrough discovery by decoding immune system’s neural signals

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Feinstein Institute for Medical Research Assistant Processor Theodoros P. Zanos and his team are the first to decode specific signals the nervous system uses to communicate immune status and inflammation to the brain. (Photo courtesy of Northwell Health)

A Feinstein Institute for Medical Research scientist made a breakthrough discovery as the first to decode the specific signals used by the nervous system to communicate with the brain.

Assistant Professor Theodoros Zanos said he and his team were able to identify in mice the nervous system’s way of communicating immune status and inflammation to the brain through bioelectronic medicine, and what they’re communicating about is a major step for the new medical field, providing insight into diagnostic and therapeutic targets as well as medical device development.

Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field of medicine combining neuroscience, molecular biology and bioengineering to tap into the nervous system and treat diseases and injuries without pharmaceuticals.

Conditions identified as potentially benefiting from bioelectronic medicine therapies include rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, paralysis and lupus.

The study, which was published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on electrical signals in mice which they detected and translated into specific changes in the homeostasis of mice.

“These results show that it is possible to detect specific cytokine signaling from the body’s receptors to the brain, through electrical signals in the vagus nerve,” Zanos said. “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.”

Zanos said in the future, the newly developed method and the newly discovered ability to decode the signals could help detect oncoming inflammation before the symptoms begin as well as improve diagnostic measures for illnesses like sepsis and other immune-related diseases.

In the group’s ongoing work, Zanos said his team is looking to see if the same framework could be applied to metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, by tracking the blood glucose homeostasis levels instead of inflammation.

“Dr. Zanos’ findings are a major discovery in the field of bioelectronic medicine,” said Dr. Kevin J. Tracey, president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute in Manhasset. “We have long known that the nervous system communicates with the body. We can now learn the language by which it communicates, which enables us to fine tune how we help the body heal itself.”

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