An Israeli scientist is unlocking the link between the immune system and the brain. Prof. Michal Schwartz, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, is honing in on ways a healthy immune system may one day stop brain degeneration in its tracks.

Fiercely driven by her theory that the brain and the immune system are closely linked, Schwartz faced harsh criticism when she first advanced her ideas of a stronger mind-body connection 20 years ago.

“I suffered a lot,” the scientist admitted. However, she refused to let her critics deride her. “My intuition that I was looking in the right direction was strong.”

Going against prevailing trends in neurological science, Schwartz challenged the view that immune cells are harmful, not beneficial, to the brain and interaction between the brain and immune cells should be avoided.

“Scientists/clinicians now know how to transplant almost every organ in the body, other than the brain,” she stressed. “It was hard for me to believe that an organ that cannot be replaced would so severely lack a system to help it heal.”

Studying the interaction of the immune system and the central nervous system in mice, Schwartz discovered strong evidence that the immune system interacts with the brain much more than scientists previously thought, and that the brain and immune system work together in a unique way.

“Think of a gate through which only those with a passport can enter,” Schwartz explained of her discovery. “This ‘passport’ checks which cells may enter, and adjusts their activity so that they do what the brain needs them to do, and not what the brain does not want them to do.”

As a result, Schwartz theorizes that the immune system may actually be key to healing the brain.

“Something must be working to restore the balance in our brains. And that something is the immune system,” Schwartz said. “Boosting the immune system, then, should be able to protect the brain from anxiety, depression and degeneration.”