Scientists generally understand that healthy bodies and healthy minds are related, but the interaction between the two isn’t as clear.
Scientist Staci Bilbo is developing a better picture of how the two relate. She's an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and her specialty is neuroimmunology -- meaning she examines the relationship between the body’s natural defense system and the grey matter in our heads.
Specifically, Bilbo looks at microglia, which are immune cells that live in the brain. The research on microglia is new. Scientists originally thought that microglia respond after trauma. For instance, they believed that microglia came to action in the event of a brain injury. Though this is true, it now seems that microglia are essential to normal brain development. Microglia aid in synapse strengthening and pruning back unnecessary cells in the developing brain.
“[Microglia] are now implicated in a vast number of different neurological disorders," Bilbo said in an interview on The State of Things. "It’s becoming apparent that just as inflammation in the blood vessel is starting to be linked to heart disease and diabetes, well, inflammation in the brain is starting to be linked to things like Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease, and even things like depression."
Her lab is looking at microglia from a developmental perspective, specifically pregnancy and the post-natal period. They examine how infection, maternal stress, and environmental toxins affect brain development.
In Bilbo’s lab, they model lower socioeconomic status on mice. To mimic environmental toxins, they exposed mice to diesel exhaust. And to model the stress that pregnancy heaps upon low-income mothers, they removed some of the “nesting material” that the pregnant mice used to build nests for their pups.
“It was clearly a psychological stressor for them. I don’t have enough, I don’t have enough resource," she said. "Later, when we looked at the pups, they had cognitive deficits, they had anxiety, they had a number of different markers of increased inflammation."
Bilbo’s research suggests that neuro-degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, traditionally known as “adult diseases,” may start early in life, perhaps even in the womb.
Bilbo said that her research has given her a new awareness of her own mind/body relationship.
“I feel very strongly that your brain’s health is impacted by your body’s health and vice versa. You can’t just walk around the world and act as if your environment and the way you move in the environment isn’t changing your entire physiology. So my hobby is actually yoga,” Bilbo said.