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Microglia: The Immune Cells of The Brain?

Nicholas Noble | April 26, 2020

Despite promise, it’s said that it can be up to 20 years from ‘lab to clinic’ by the time funding, research, and testing is completed for new medical treatments. We see that medicine is more robust than ever, but not without roadblocks. It’s argued that many suffer unnecessarily through this waiting game.

On the bright side, movement is brewing to bring treatment roll-out to a fraction of that time, especially for measures deemed likely safe. One subject leading the way is the study of microglia. 

Microglia: White Blood Cells of The Brain?

Sometimes called the ‘white blood cells of the brain,’ microglia are specialized to scavenge debris, maintain brainwave homeostasis, and even communicate (and respond) on behalf of the gut-brain axis. For example, healthy microglia in action may help prevent cognitive decline like Alzheimer’s.

And when awry, they can contribute to a host of diseases. For a long time they actually were thought only as part of the brain’s structure, a paradigm which has shifted in the last decade. Researchers now established their wide purposes: immunologically, electromagnetically (brainwaves), for cognition, and overall as pivotal in the health of mind-body. 

Microglia are noteworthy as a target to improve health, and especially since certain integrative approaches may be able to regulate their behavior from outside the body!

Microglia in Cognitive, Physiological Health

Microglia are affected by, and in some cases responsible for manifestations of disease. This is especially the case for illnesses rooted in chronic inflammation or auto-immunities [1]. Examples include mental health disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and metabolic syndromes [2-4]. 

Neuroscans measuring microglia activity levels are now an essential tool to understand how excess inflammation (immune response) may contribute to cognitive health issues. And ultimately how the immune state of the brain may influence the body (and vice versa). 

These reasons explain how research on microglia now better supports correlations between mind, body, and health – fueling the interest of integrative practitioners. 

Integrative Neuroscience to Improve Microglia Health?

From this critical intersection, reports agree that integrative medicine may hold well-suited treatment options. Beyond efficacy, integrative approaches may also be desirable for high thresholds of safety, key to cutting delays in approving new treatments. 

Rather than invasive or pharmaceutical (conventional) approaches, it may be possible to help ‘reboot’ overactive microglia both through behavior, or even from outside the body. These integrative measures include intermittent fasting [5-6], and even transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) [1-3].

TRANSCRANIAL MAGNETIC STIMULATION FOR MICROGLIA

The use of TMS has been reported to encourage microglia to cease overactivity, and return to healthier function. This is possible because these cells are responsive to brainwaves, a type of electromagnetism [1]. 

Applying magnetic stimulation may help break a cycle of stress, giving the brain (and body) a chance to relax, and to help return to homeostasis. Such research is thought provoking and is promising for its high likelihood of safety [2-3].

Though nothing is certain yet, it may be one possibility towards a safer, more effective treatment strategy for a host of diseases which involve microglia.

INTERMITTENT FASTING AND MICROGLIA HEALTH

And alongside intermittent fasting or ‘fast mimicking’ diets, it’s even clearer why neuroscience is teaming up with integrative physicians, ramping up research on what benefits ‘fasted states’ have on these brain cells.

Researchers believe fasting may influence microglia cells by inducing a state known as ‘autophagy,’ which besides triggering stem-cell activation, may encourage microglia to reset from an overactive state, and begin functioning healthier once more (clearing debris, protecting neurons) [5-8].

One definition of autophagy, is a natural process which helps the body (and brain) recycle excess materials, and clear cellular debris. It relies on the hormonal trigger of going without food, a shift in metabolism which may counteract excessive immune response in the brain, and the body [5-8].

The Bottom Line

In patients with auto-immunities, integrative medicine believes that fasting should not be ignored as part of a complete treatment strategy; it’s a noninvasive approach, instead relying on a behavioral change like 16:8 fasting. 

So, as we stay tuned for more curious treatments in the health of our microglia cells (like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation), intermittent fasting may have a high margin of safety [5], while being reasonably accessible, cost-effective, and readily available.

Other practices suggested to promote brain health include anti-inflammatory food choices, hot and cold therapies like ice-showers or the use of sauna, and regular exercise. These are examples which are generally safe and not subject to the approval timelines of conventional treatments.

If you’re looking to get the jump on your brain health, you might also consider including matcha green tea in your day. It’s high in L-theanine, an amino-acid which drives brainwave balance by creating a calm, relaxed state. Perhaps it could help our brains to a much needed break?

And if nothing else, matcha may mimic certain benefits from exercise and fasting – like elevated ketogenesis – which are thought to carry significant value to overall health, brains included.

-Team Matcha Kari

 

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References
[1] Mathys, H., Adaikkan, C., Gao, F., Young, J. Z., Manet, E., Hemberg, M., ... & Tsai, L. H. (2017). Temporal tracking of microglia activation in neurodegeneration at single-cell resolution. Cell reports, 21(2), 366-380.
[2] Laccarino, H. F., Singer, A. C., Martorell, A. J., Rudenko, A., Gao, F., Gillingham, T. Z., ... & Adaikkan, C. (2016). Gamma frequency entrainment attenuates amyloid load and modifies microglia. Nature, 540(7632), 230-235.
[3] Grossman, N., Bono, D., Dedic, N., Kodandaramaiah, S. B., Rudenko, A., Suk, H. J., ... & Pascual-Leone, A. (2017). Noninvasive deep brain stimulation via temporally interfering electric fields. Cell, 169(6), 1029-1041.
[4] Choi, I. Y., Piccio, L., Childress, P., Bollman, B., Ghosh, A., Brandhorst, S., ... & Wei, M. (2016). A diet mimicking fasting promotes regeneration and reduces autoimmunity and multiple sclerosis symptoms. Cell reports, 15(10), 2136-2146.
[5] Plaza-Zabala, A., Sierra-Torre, V., & Sierra, A. (2017). Autophagy and microglia: novel partners in neurodegeneration and aging. International journal of molecular sciences, 18(3), 598.
[6] Cope, E. C., LaMarca, E. A., Monari, P. K., Olson, L. B., Martinez, S., Zych, A. D., ... & Gould, E. (2018). Microglia play an active role in obesity-associated cognitive decline. Journal of Neuroscience, 38(41), 8889-8904.
[7] Lee, J., Giordano, S., & Zhang, J. (2012). Autophagy, mitochondria and oxidative stress: cross-talk and redox signalling. Biochemical Journal, 441(2), 523-540.
[8] Salemi, S., Yousefi, S., Constantinescu, M. A., Fey, M. F., & Simon, H. U. (2012). Autophagy is required for self-renewal and differentiation of adult human stem cells. Cell research, 22(2), 432-435.

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