I got to meet Jonathan Kipnis in 2014, and it was a fantastic experience; he was very down to earth. He was at UVA, so I dreamt about getting a faculty position there. I kept in touch with him, and then he started the Brain Immunology and Glia center and made another huge discovery in 2015. In 2018, I was lucky enough to secure a position here at UVA.
Q. Can you explain microglia and their function?
A. Yes, yes. The brain is made up of cells called neurons. However, half of brain cells are other cells called “glia.” Microglia originate in the embryo outside the brain and make their way to the brain, and so we think they can be manipulated independent of cells that originate in the brain itself.
Dysfunctional microglia can be problematic in different pathologies. We know that one of the biggest problems of Alzheimer’s disease is that the microglia do not function correctly. So one of the big ideas is how we can replace dysfunctional microglia with healthy microglia.
Q. Can you explain how your research with microglia and behavior are linked?
A. We focus on a certain gene that’s really important in microglia, and what we found out is that if you take out this gene in males and females, you get different behaviors.
So normally, mice are social creatures; they like to spend time with other mice. But if you take out this gene in mice, you now start seeing that the male mice are not as social anymore. If you take it out in females, it doesn’t matter, they’re still social at the same level, but they’re more anxious.
So, we’re seeing this one protein and this one receptor that may be regulating differently in males versus females, and we still do not understand the underlying basis for that. But that’s why we will continue to have a job.
Q. Are there other examples of the importance of microglia?
A. A few years ago, a study came out that says that the microglia play an important role in obesity. Other studies show that they also affect neurodevelopmental disorders like autism or Alzheimer’s disease. It feels like you can go anywhere and microglia are important in various brain diseases. So presumably, some of the therapies in the future would be targeted toward alleviating or improving microglial function so that it can improve brain function.