Battling the flu could someday be as much as about inhaling some extra brain protein as reaching for another tissue.
Researchers at Washington State University in Spokane have discovered that a brain-specific protein called AcPb speeds recovery in lab mice by promoting the healing power of sleep. In mice that lack the protein, symptoms were more severe and they died at higher rates.
“It opens a lot of new possibilities for looking at how to combat influenza,” said professor James Krueger, noting the study marked a departure by examining the role of sleep and brain function on what’s long been known to be a lung disease.
“We knew that the virus replicated in the lungs,” Krueger said, “but we’ve discovered it also reaches parts of the brain.”
The new study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted over the past two years in conjunction with a research team from the University of Washington, examined the interaction of AcPb with an immune system signaling a chemical known as interleukin-1, which is among the inflammatory molecules that cause the chills, fever and general body aches you get when suffering from the flu.
When the brain protein linked with the inflammatory molecule in test animals it helped regulate their sleep. That’s significant, said Krueger and fellow researcher Christopher Davis, because previous research has shown that sleep is what keeps the immune system healthy and is critical to the body’s ability to battle bacterial and viral infections.
“This finding expands our knowledge of the molecular pathway involved in recovery from influenza,” said Krueger, a co-founder of WSU’s Sleep and Performance Research Center and a nationally recognized pioneer in the study of connections between sleep and infectious diseases.
The study was featured in a recent edition of the science journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
Possible future applications include development of protein-laced nasal sprays designed to increase AcPb levels while fighting the flu. Davis said research options also could focus on whether methods of promoting greater AcPb production when necessary could be developed.
In the study, researchers infected mice with a variant of H1N1, the flu strain that spread rapidly worldwide in 2009.
Test mice that had the brain protein slept more, had better survival rates and recovered more quickly from the infection than those that lacked the protein.
Krueger said the prospect of being able to explore treatment strategies aimed at boosting the immune system’s ability to battle infections could help mitigate the challenges posed by the flu’s ability to rapidly mutate.
The findings also could aid research into fighting other microbial diseases.