The good news comes from a study in the Jan. 15 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Interleukin-6 (IL-6) is found inside cells. The hormone is often regarded as a negative player in the immune system because of its association with inflammation injuries and malignant diseases. However, this study says Il-6 protects brain cells in mice.
The researchers studied different groups of mice that were genetically engineered to have variations in their ability to produce IL-6. All the groups of mice were injected with a virus that causes a degenerative nerve disease.
Of the 23 infected mice with the IL-6 gene, two died. In the infected mice that lacked the IL-6 gene, 17 of 29 died.
When they examined the mice, the Mayo Clinic scientists found dramatic degeneration of neurons in the spinal cords of the mice without the IL-6 gene. When they examined the brains of the mice with the IL-6 gene, they found IL-6 everywhere in the mouse brains.
That surprised them because IL-6 isn't found in brains of healthy animals.
In the mouse brains, IL-6 was found in astrocytes, which are supporting structures on the outside of brain cells that help connect the brain cells to transmit nerve signals. The researchers say the astrocytes in the mouse brains started making IL-6 after the mice were infected with the virus.
Identifying factors that protect brain cells may help find ways to fight diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.
Here's where you can learn more about neurons.