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Nervous System May Play a Bigger Role In Infections: Study

Update Date: Nov 27, 2014 07:36 PM EST
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The nervous system may play a bigger role in infections and autoimmune diseases than previously known, according to a new study. 

If researchers can learn more about that role, it could provide insight into diagnosing and treating everything from the stomach flu to rheumatoid arthritis, the press release said. 

Researchers observed that neurons of the peripheral nervous system - specialized nerve cells that transmit information throughout the body - are known to send information about local infection or inflammation to the central nervous system so the CNS can co-ordinate the whole body response.

Dr. Benjamin Steinberg, a post-doctoral fellow and an anesthesiology resident at St. Michael's, hypothesized that the neurons may be sending the CNS not just a general Danger Warning but specific information about whether the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria, the type of bacteria present or the nature of the auto-immune reaction.

Basic science researchers are now trying to decipher that "neural code" of information being sent by neurons, the press release added. 

"The blue sky idea is that if we know the language and can read the code, in theory we can engineer or write our own," said Dr. Steinberg, in the press release.

"Timely diagnosis and intervention are essential to minimize deaths and complications. If the neurons are reading this information from an infection in the blood or the liver and we can interrogate the nervous system, we can make a diagnosis in real time. For example, we could perhaps tell quickly whether someone has the flu virus or bacterial pneumonia, which would determine whether antibiotics would be appropriate. At the extreme, a patient in septic shock requires prompt administration of antibiotic agents since each hour of delay is associated with a 7.6 per cent increase in mortality, but physicians do not always know what bacterium they need to target. An inappropriately chosen antibiotic can have serious ramifications for patient well-being."

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

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