Scientists uncover a new role for blood-brain barrier in neuron function and damage: Findings open up a potential new avenue for therapies aimed at countering neurodegeneration

While the role of the blood-brain barrier has long been appreciated for its ability to maintain precise control over what molecules can enter the nervous system, very little is known about how the cells that form the barrier influence the function of the nervous system. “What we know currently about the blood-brain barrier is mostly that we don’t know much beyond the basics,” says Buck Institute professor Pejmun Haghighi, PhD, who has uncovered a new role for these cells.

Haghighi is the senior author of a study publishing in the August 19, 2022 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that offers for the first time evidence, in fruit flies, that signals originating in the cells of the barrier also play a direct role in controlling what happens in the nerve cells the barrier is protecting.

The breakdown of the blood-brain barrier accompanies many neurological conditions, including epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, and neurodegenerative diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. “We are finding that the barrier is not just a protective check but also a source of regulation,” Haghighi says. “It can cause problems rather than simply being a byproduct of neurodegeneration. We are learning now that there is definitely a two-way street.”

The finding introduces a new conceptual approach to looking for therapies that could counter damage caused by neurodegenerative diseases, and devising strategies to get drugs past the blood-brain barrier to target sites in the brain.

Haghighi explains his team’s findings as such: Imagine that there is a gatekeeper at a door that checks IDs and ensures that anyone entering is supposed to be there, and also checks the ID of those who entered through a back door and kicks out anyone not supposed to be there. That is the job of the blood-brain barrier.

Now imagine that beyond just being a security check, the gatekeeper also gives out directions about where to go and what to do. The second function is what Haghighi’s team revealed.

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