Inflammation has power for good or evil when it comes to health. For infection and wound healing, it is essential to our survival. But all too often, for reasons we don't fully understand, the inflammatory process turns into a chronic disorder. Many parts of the body can be affected, including the joints (arthritis), blood vessels (atherosclerosis), skin (contact dermatitis allergies), respiratory system (asthma) and digestive system (inflammatory bowel disease). Recent research indicates that the brain can also be a target.
The March 2010 issue of Vitamin Research News contains a review article of the medical literature on inflammation and the brain. The blood vessels in the brain have exceptional low permeability to large molecules, so that the brain is protected against most infectious agents. Drug researchers speak of the “blood brain barrier”, which also keeps many drugs and other molecules out of the brain. Inflammation may disrupt this barrier. It may also activate microglial cells, the primary immune cells in the central nervous system, and cause them to secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines including the interleukins IL-1beta and IL-6, and tumor necrosis factor (TNF).
Inflammatory damage is associated with with brain conditions including:
1. Mild cognitive impairment. This is the diagnosis for memory problems less severe than dementia.
2. Age-related cognitive decline, which affects nearly one third of adults.
3. Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia.
4. Vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's. Strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) are associated with this form.
5. Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative disease characterized by tremors and other movement disorders.
The evidence includes elevated levels of C-reactive protein, IL-6, and TNF in patients with these conditions.
Treatment for inflammatory conditions includes non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, and tumor necrosis factor inhibitors. Aspirin is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory used to prevent cardiovascular disease, as well as for pain relief.