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Brain Parasite Has Potential to Unlock Neurobiology Secrets

Posted June 13, 2013

Dr. Anita Koshy sees a common and typically harmless brain parasite as a potential key to unlocking secrets of neurobiology that can be used to intervene in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

Koshy, a University of Arizona assistant professor of neurology and immunobiology, has developed new models for the study of Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that infects more than 10 percent of Americans and up to 80 percent of the population in some countries.

Recruited to the UA in August, Koshy arrived with a medical degree from Duke University, residencies at the University of Washington and University of California, San Francisco, and a fellowship from Stanford University, where she was trained in one of the most prestigious molecular Toxoplasma labs in the country.

A member of the BIO5 Institute at the UA, Koshy balances clinical work with research into Toxoplasma, one of the most common parasites found in humans. Once a person is infected, the parasite lives in the person’s brain for the rest of his or her life. Generally, however, the parasite produces no symptoms, and people likely will never know they’ve been infected, except if they develop a compromised immune system, such as is seen in AIDS patients. In these patients, the parasite can cause a serious or even fatal brain infection.

Koshy considers her approach to be “dual effort research.” By seeking to understand how the parasite persists in the brain, she hopes to be able to both improve treatments for toxoplasmosis and define new targets for controlling dysfunctional brain immune responses that play a critical role in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

“It’s particularly interesting how (the parasite) persists in the brain without doing harm,” Koshy says. “This is a particularly good opportunity to understand how to manipulate the brain’s immune response.”

To persist in the brain without causing harm, Toxoplasma has evolved to dampen the brain’s immune response. And if the parasite can accomplish that, perhaps scientists can find a way to manipulate that same immune response. If doctors can understand and harness that capability at the molecular level, they could in turn design therapies for inflammatory brain diseases.

“The aim is to understand how the parasite is hiding from the immune system. If we can understand that, we can understand how to manipulate these pathways when things go awry,” she says. “This is a novel approach to understanding some foundational neurobiology.”

Source: University of Arizona

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