Brain-immune communication: meet the expert Dr Mark Hutchinson.

Brain Immune communication expert neuroscientist Dr Mark Hutchinson

Meet Dr Mark Hutchinson.

Mark’s research focus is ‘the other brain’ and immune-to-brain and brain-to-immune communication.

Mark is an Australian Research Council Research Fellow in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Adelaide where he has recently been appointed to Associate Professor.  Mark started his undergraduate studies at the University of Adelaide in 1996 and graduated with a BSc in 1998. He did honours in ‘99, a PhD from 2000-2004, and after four years in Colorado, moved back to Adelaide.  Seems he can’t stay away!  

Mark recently contributed an article to Your Brain Health looking at the interaction between the brain and the immune system.

I want to understand how and why you ended up here working as a neuroscientist. What put you on the path to where you are now?

Where to start…

Enrolment into 1st year BSc was probably the first part of the journey—in my final year of school I had chronic fatigue syndrome and so missed out on much of the year. I just got into the BSc and felt way behind because I had missed so much of year 12.

My grandmother was reading the first year BSc “calendar” and pointed out this subject called Molecular and Cell Biology. It was a catch-all introduction into everything you wanted to know about human biology. I did that subject and loved it, didn’t do all that well, but loved it.

From there I got my way through my BSc, never really succeeding, but getting by. I loved the research lab sessions. I actually got to see how things worked and I wanted to understand why I did each and every step.  At this stage I knew I liked immunology and pharmacology, but neuroscience wasn’t something I had specifically pursued at that stage.

Finally something clicked. I did really well in Honours and then got offered a PhD scholarship. I knew I wanted to get back into immunology, so I convinced my supervisor Prof Andrew Somogyi that there was something in the area of immunology and opioid pharmacology that was worth pursuing. That led to my wanderings in PhD’ville for four years making all sorts of new discoveries about how opioids altered immune cell responses.

During this time I kept reading about cells called glia—the immune cells in the brain. Now, I remembered from my immunology lectures that immune cells were NOT found in the brain, so I literally filed away and ignored any papers I read about them. Until one day (literally one of my last experiments in my PhD), I discovered that an immune cell response in cells from the blood of healthy people that was related to their pain scores.  This made us all scratch out heads. We had no idea what was going on.

How could immune cells in the blood contribute to a response that required neuronal and brain involvement?

This made me think more about those pesky glial papers I had ignored and put in the too-hard basket. I went back to the old papers and re-read as much as I could. I discovered that these cells could be the answer to all these questions.  The main author that I saw as championing this novel idea of immune-to-brain and brain-to-immune communication was Prof Linda Watkins. I started an email conversation with her and it snowballed from there!

This is a ramble, but I hope it gives you a little of the story!!

What motivates you? What are you most excited or passionate about (maybe this isn’t neuroscience!)? 

Family. Science is fun, but it pays the bills. I have become very efficient at work so I can get what I need to do there (not always what I want to do) so I can come home and spend undistracted time with my wife and kids.

Now, on to the science! Give me a brief overview of your research.

Our research focus is on the “other brain”. Ninety per cent of the cells in the brain and spinal cord are not neuronal – they are immune-like cells, (we call them glia).  We now understand that these glial cells are critical to the health and disease of the brain.

Glia are best known for their role in Alzheimer’s and other neuroinflammatory events where neuronal cells get killed off. However, we are discovering that these cells play a fascinating role in a lot more responses than we had appreciated.

It is now clear that glial immune signalling contributes to behavioural and cognitive issues ranging from epilepsy through to stress and depression.

This is really exciting because most brain and spinal cord diseases are not very well managed with current neuronal targeted drugs, either because the drugs don’t work well, or there are unwanted side effects of the drug. Therefore, we might have better drug that are safer and easier to use if we targeted the immune cells of the brain instead.

This has become my specialty. I have worked on several classes of drugs that are now in clinical development to target glial mechanisms of brain disease. But it doesn’t stop there … we are also finding that some of the neuronal targeted drugs might have their unwanted side effects triggered by glial mechanisms. For example,

I’ve discovered that opioid pain medications like morphine can create their addiction and dependence via this brain-immune pathway.

We have subsequently extended this to other drugs of abuse like alcohol as well. These are really exciting discoveries because in some cases they are providing the first line of drug treatments for drug addiction.

Give me a brief overview of what a typical day might involve? What does a neuroscientist *do*?

Ha ha….what typical day!?

My plan involves coming in and having our 9am “scrum” with the lab so we all touch base with each other over coffee to find out what we are all up to and what else we have learnt.

From there my day can range from one hour here and 30 minutes there with one or two of the nine PhD and four Honours students I supervise … to spending 3 hours working out why a statistical script won’t run … to 5 hours organising ethics clearances … to answering emails from collaborators … to doing newspaper, radio and TV interviews.

Bottom line – I have no typical day anymore – but that is kind of fun as well. If someone can find out what a neuroscientists are supposed to do can someone let me know? Please!

Who funds your research?

My research is funded from several sources:

  1. Australian Research Council Research Fellowship and Discovery Project, Australia
  2. Congressionally directed medical research program, USA Department of Defense
  3. Australian Research Council centre of Excellence in Nanoscale Biophotonics
  4. National Health and Medical Research Council
  5. National Institutes of Health, NIDA & NIAAA
  6. University of Adelaide
  7. My consulting fund

Take this opportunity to dispel a myth. As a neuroscientist, what beliefs or misconceptions about the brain really bug you?

It’s a myth that we only use 10% of our brains — the other 90% are immune cells and they are fundamentally important to everything you do, think and feel.

Take this opportunity share any message you’d like about your neuroscience.

Pain—it is the 4th most prevalent health condition in Australia and the most common reason someone will seek medical attention. But we have no way of collecting data on how much money is spent on research because we don’t have a Field of Research (FOR) code for it.

Pain receives significantly less funding that other comparatively smaller medical burdens.

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  1. Kim Thorley on March 28, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    Finally, some evidence that medicine is progressing toward finding answers to debilitating and often life-threatening illnesses. Not surprising though, that the field of neuroscience is responsible. Your brilliant findings have answered questions or theories that I have had throughout alot of my life regarding the real cause of depression and stress-related illnesses. I have, many times, come across pieces of studies which continue to reaffirm in my mind that auto-immunity is a huge contributor. And now you’re finding the answers, but more importantly to sufferers, proof. Sadly, So many doctors do not want to hear about something that makes them question their beliefs without proof.
    The medications used today simply do not work. No matter how many I’ve tried or just wanted to believe they would. And this is why! So many people with eg depression have autoimmune issues as well.
    You have renewed my hope for the right answer being found finally, after so many years.
    With much gratitude.

  2. […] Brain-immune communication: meet the expert Dr Mark Hutchinson. […]

  3. Vicki on February 9, 2017 at 7:12 am

    Researchers at the University of Adelaide have discovered cell characteristic related to this specific type of pain which, when detected, may transform the way chronic back pain is treated and diagnosed.
    I watch the video for the above topic. Dr Hutchinson said people with chronic pain have overactive immune cells that set off pain signals in the body can be tested by a blood test. I am suffering with long term sciatic pain. Would you please tell me the name of the blood test and the kind of medicine that should be used. Thanks

  4. تمريض منزلي on March 8, 2022 at 8:26 pm

    I found this article very interesting, thanks for sharing

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