Neuro-immune Interactions in Health and Disease - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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Neuro-immune Interactions in Health and Disease

Is good health nothing more than a state of mind? Can thought alone prevent serious illness? Conventional wisdom, of course, says no. The breakthroughs of the future, we are told, will derive from basic research. All else can be charitably categorized as “holistic” or “homeopathic.”

Today’s medicine focuses on what can reliably be tested and measured. But conventional medicine does at times provide evidence supportive of a more nuanced view of how the body works. For example, is there a link between the workings of the nervous system and immune system? At first glance, the two would appear to be separate and distinct, but the developing field of Neuroimmunology suggests otherwise.

According to the US National Institute of Health: “Despite the brain‘s status as an immune privileged site, an extensive bi-directional communication takes place between the nervous and the immune system in both health and disease. Immune cells and neuroimmune molecules such as cytokines, chemokines, and growth factors modulate brain function through multiple signaling pathways throughout the lifespan. Immunological, physiological and psychological stressors engage cytokines and other immune molecules as mediators of interactions with neuroendocrine, neuropeptide, and neurotransmitter systems. For example, brain cytokine levels increase following stress exposure, while treatments designed to alleviate stress reverse this effect.”[1]

A recent article points up the omnipresence of this relationship: “Most readers, like the authors, are undoubtedly familiar with “feeling sick”, an all-too-common experience in our daily lives. Few individuals, immunologists and neuroscientists included, may realize that this sensation usually reflects an activation of the sensory nervous system by localized or systemic immune processes. Regardless of the impact of such internal immunological processes on our conscious experience, it is apparent that a continuous concerted monitoring of the immune system’s activities and responding by the somatosensory and autonomic nervous systems is important to maintain health and that a balance of afferent and efferent neuronal activity must be maintained to avoid pathology.”[2]

There’s even evidence to suggest chronic pain can be explained as a neuro-immune interaction: “Increasing evidence suggests that neuro-immune and neuro-glial interactions are critically involved in chronic pain sensitization.”[3]

Indeed, it appears that any number of pathologies can be explained in part by neuro-immune abnormalities: “Multidirectional interactions between the nervous and immune systems have been documented in homeostasis and pathologies ranging from multiple sclerosis to autism, and from leukemia to acute and chronic inflammation.” “The nervous system and immune system are the main body sensory interfaces that perceive, integrate and respond to environmental challenges. Both systems have the capacity to recall earlier challenges and events, mounting memory responses that anticipate and efficiently adapt to ever changing conditions.”[4]

Lawyers should know that perhaps one approach to managing an immune disorder is to examine the health of the nervous system––and vice versa. They should investigate whether serious nerve injuries may predispose a patient to later immune disorders. In other areas, as well, it’s probably true that these types of relationships permeate the body. The ten major organ systems––cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, integumentary, immune, musculoskeletal, nervous, renal, reproductive, and respiratory––probably are interconnected in ways still not recognized. In light of this, injuries should be evaluated as to how they will affect not only the part of the body injured but other organ systems as well. These relationships are subtle, not fully understood, and they shed new light on an old question: is good health nothing more than a state of mind?

[1] Wikipedia, Neuroimmunology (quoting US National Institute of Health, Functional Links between the Immune System, Brain Function and Behavior)

[2] Jose Ordovas-MontanesSeth Rakoff-NahoumSiyi HuangLorena Riol-BlancoOlga Barreiro, and  Ulrich H. von Andrian, The Regulation of Immunological Processes by Peripheral Neurons in Homeostasis and Disease, Trends Immunol. 2015 Oct; 36(10): 578–604. 

[3] Xing-Jun LiuTong LiuGang ChenBing WangXiao-Lu YuCui Yin, and  Ru-Rong Ji, TLR signaling adaptor protein MyD88 in primary sensory neurons contributes to persistent inflammatory and neuropathic pain and neuroinflammation, Sci Rep. 2016; 6: 28188.

[4] Henrique Veiga-Fernandes, Daniel Mucida, Neuro-immune interactions at barrier surfaces, Cell. 2016 May 5; 165(4): 801–811. 


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