Immune view offers clues to early Alzheimer’s

Research Lives: Prof Marina Lynch, head of neuroinflammation research group in TCD

Congratulations Marina, you are about to receive the Irish Society for Immunology medal and give the related public lecture. What will you be talking about?

I’m going to talk about my research, and how immunology could help us figure out more about the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Tell us more about that, what have you been researching in the brain?

My research looks at very important cells in the brain called microglia. Their job is to protect other brain cells we call neurons, which send information around the brain. We think in Alzheimer’s disease the microglia become exhausted and they can’t function as well as they should, and this could be linked with the damage that happens to the brain as Alzheimer’s disease progresses.


Where does the immune system come in?

In Alzheimer’s disease, the immune system in the brain appears to be compromised. We also know that if people who take medicines to dampen an immune response called inflammation for other medical conditions, it seems to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. So I was interested to see if the microglia cells in the brain act like a type of immune cell called a macrophage, which protects the body from bacteria and other invaders by gobbling them up.

Why might a change in the microglia cause a problem?

We think a normal function of microglia might be stopping the build-up of a protein called amyloid beta. An accumulation of amyloid beta is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, and we think that early in the development of the disease microglia might become exhausted and so they can’t process amyloid beta in the usual way.

What have you been finding?

We can see that the microglia change in a lab model of Alzheimer’s disease, for one thing the cells now take up lots of iron. You can detect iron using MRI, so we hope to track the changes in microglia over time. I am also really interested to see if the microglia switch their metabolism, or how they burn energy, much like macrophages do in the immune system when they become activated.

Science is something of a family affair for you, isn’t it?

Yes, I developed an interest in science mostly because of my parents. My father was a vet, I would go out with him and I would ask what treatments he was giving and why. My grandfather and mother were both pharmacists and I enjoyed listening to the conversations they would all have.

My husband (Prof Kingston Mills) is an immunologist, our son Tim is an engineer and our daughter Evanna is an immunology researcher in Harvard University. I am collaborating with her at the moment, she is going to examine the metabolism of the microglia cells.

And finally, how do you take a break?

I walk to and from work every day, and that is my serious switch off time. I also enjoy gardening, I play bridge badly and I read a lot. I mentor too, especially for women in science.”

Prof Marina Lynch will present a free Irish Society for Immunology lecture – 'Does the immune system hold the key to understanding the deterioration in cognition with age and in Alzheimer's disease?' – at Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, 152-160 Pearse Street, Dublin 2 at 6.30pm on Wednesday, May 1st. No pre-booking required.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation