While working in Bangladesh, researchers found that the longer infants suffered with a fever, the worse they performed on developmental tests at 12 and 24 months. Higher levels of inflammation-causing proteins in the blood were associated with worse performance, while greater levels of inflammation-fighting proteins were tied to improved performance.
“Early childhood is an absolutely critical time of brain development, and it’s also a time when these children are suffering from recurrent infections. Therefore, we asked whether these infections are contributing to the impaired development we observe in children growing up in adversity,” said lead author Nona Jiang, who conducted the research as an undergraduate student in the laboratory of Dr. William Petri Jr.
The findings, published online in the journal BMC Pediatrics, may help explain why there is such overwhelming cognitive impairment among children living in poverty. The results also offer direction for physicians trying to help: by preventing inflammation, they may be able to boost children’s mental abilities for a lifetime.
“By studying which early childhood influences are associated with hindrances to growth and learning, we will know better where to target interventions for the critical period of early childhood,” said researcher Dr. Rebecca Scharf of UVA’s Department of Pediatrics.
The study highlights the significant and complex relationship between the immune system and cognitive development, an increasingly important area of research that UVA has helped pioneer.
“This is a very interesting study, showing, probably for the first time, the link between peripheral cytokine levels and improved cognitive development in humans,” said Jonathan Kipnis, a professor of neuroscience and director of UVA’s center for Brain Immunology & Glia.
“What is of the most interest and of a great novelty is the fact that [inflammation-fighting cytokines] have positive correlation with cognitive function. My lab published results showing that these IL-4 cytokines are required for proper brain function in mice, and this work from Dr. Petri’s lab completely independently shows similar correlation in humans.”
“I hope the scientific community will appreciate how dramatic the effects of the immune system are on the central nervous system and will invest more efforts in studying and better understanding these complex and intriguing interactions between the body’s two major systems.”
Source: University of Virginia