Blood Immune Cells Reveal Epigenetic Shifts in Alzheimer’s Study

David Martinez

Written by David Martinez


The increasing rates of Alzheimer’s disease have become a pressing concern, driving researchers to delve deeper into the mechanisms of the condition in search of innovative treatments. In a breakthrough study by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, scientists have discovered epigenetic alterations in the blood immune cells of Alzheimer’s patients, shedding light on how the body’s own defenses could be linked to the disease.

Peripheral Immune System’s Role in Alzheimer’s

Central to this study is the peripheral immune system, which encompasses the circulating white blood cells that serve as a crucial first line of defense against pathogens. Dr. David Gate, the senior author of the study, points to emerging evidence that connects the peripheral immune system to Alzheimer’s disease. This connection is further illustrated by the possibility that past immune stimuli might lead to the clonal expansion and subsequent activation of immune cells within the cerebrospinal fluid, a clear bodily fluid found in the brain and spine.

Epigenetic Changes and Alzheimer’s Disease Risk

The research team posits that environmental factors, such as viral infections or lifestyle choices, could be key influencers of the epigenetic changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease risk. In examining the immune cells from Alzheimer’s patients, the scientists noticed open chromatin structures, a sign of epigenetic changes, in comparison to cells from healthy individuals.

Notably, the study identified an increased expression of the protein CXCR3 on T cells in Alzheimer’s patients. This protein may be crucial in guiding these cells to respond to signals emanating from the Alzheimer’s-affected brain. Additionally, monocytes, another type of white blood cell, exhibited epigenetic changes related to genes associated with inflammatory proteins, suggesting that Alzheimer’s patients may have a more pro-inflammatory immune system.

Potential Viral Triggers and Immune Cell Therapies

While it’s still unclear what exactly triggers these epigenetic changes, viral infections have been proposed as a potential factor. Building on these findings, Dr. Gate and his team are considering the development of immune cell therapies to treat Alzheimer’s, signaling a significant shift toward targeting the body’s own immune response to combat the disease.

Behavior, Environment, and Gene Function

Dr. Manisha Parulekar, reflecting on the study’s implications, emphasized that it supports the understanding of how behavior or environment can impact gene function. The research reinforces the known risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s. In parallel, Dr. Karen D. Sullivan recognizes the novel insights provided by the study into Alzheimer’s pathology and considers peripheral inflammation as a potential therapeutic target.

Future Research and Understanding Functional Decline

To fully comprehend the relationship between these epigenetic findings and the functional decline observed in Alzheimer’s, further research with larger sample sizes will be essential. Such studies will be pivotal in confirming the role of the peripheral immune system in Alzheimer’s and could pave the way for groundbreaking treatments that modify the immune response to slow or reverse the progression of the disease.

As Alzheimer’s disease continues to pose a significant challenge to healthcare systems worldwide, the quest for effective therapies becomes ever more urgent. The findings from Northwestern University’s research team offer a promising new direction, with the potential to transform the way we understand and ultimately treat this debilitating condition.