Research

The Center for Neuroimmunology & Neuroinfectious Diseases (CNND) studies viral infection of the central nervous system (CNS), autoimmune of the CNS,  and neuroimaging.

Overview of our studies

Viral Infection of the CNS

The CNND supports cutting-edge “bench to bedside” research on neuroinvasive viral infections that affect both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Basic science research laboratories in the CNND aim to understand molecular host-pathogen interactions during infections caused by emerging insect-borne alphaviruses and flaviviruses such as West Nile and Zika virus as well as sexually transmitted infections such as herpes simplex virus. Translational work at the CNND builds on the foundation provided by basic science to design therapies and vaccines against these neuroinvasive infections, many of which have no cure. Finally, clinical research studies at the CNND seek to understand the triggers behind central nervous system disorders caused by viruses such as JC virus and aim to develop better treatments for these devastating conditions. Together, research at the CNND encompasses the fields of virology, immunology and neuroscience in an effort to better understand, treat and prevent viral infections that can cause destructive neurological disease.

Autoimmunity in the CNS

A major emphasis of the CNND is on research endeavors related to nervous system autoimmunity. Multiple sclerosis (MS), the prototypical autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (CNS), serves as a focal point for research on CNS autoimmunity. Through the John L. Trotter MS Center at Washington University in St. Louis CNND members are involved in clinical trials and other human studies. Current projects involve immune mechanisms of disease, treatment responses to new therapies, and biomarker development and validation. Further, research on animal models of CNS inflammation are focused on the pathogenesis of, and identification of therapeutic targets for MS. Several additional autoimmune diseases are under scrutiny by CNND members, including neuro-sarcoidosis, autoimmune encephalitis, and inflammatory peripheral nerve and muscle diseases. In total, research within the domain of nervous system autoimmunity is the embodiment of the collaborative and synergistic nature of the CNND.

Neuroimaging

Imaging of the CNS is an especially important area of study because it is difficult to directly examine diseased CNS tissues of living people due to fear of harming the person. Therefore, several groups within the CNND focus on improving the quantitation and specificity of CNS imaging. These groups have focused primarily on MRI imaging, including diffusion imaging, but members of the CNND also use optical imaging and PET imaging to better understand the CNS and its pathologies.

Several different animal models of CNS pathology are also utilized to enable the correlation of imaging results with the underlying pathology. Recent achievements in the neuroimaging area include the development of a quantitative diffusion imaging method that can distinguish nerve fibers (both content and integrity), level of myelination, cellular content, and edema content. Neuroimaging can also resolve crossing tracts, which are abundant in the human brain and with a resolution of 2mm on a standard 3.0T MRI scanner. Another imaging focus within the CNND utilizes R2* (1/T2*) to measure tissue integrity in the CNS. The CNND group working on this can measure cortical gray matter injury (which is notoriously difficult to visualize using standard MR protocols), and have shown that their measure correlate with cognitive function in MS patients.