Understanding how infectious diseases affect the aging brain


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted exactly how susceptible the elderly are to infectious diseases and how impactful those infections can be. Now, Eva Šimončičová (Neuroscience Graduate Program, PhD candidate, Tremblay Lab) wants to understand exactly how infections trigger or exacerbate cognitive impairment during aging and in neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

“It has become unavoidably evident that understanding the long-term neurological consequences of these infection-related diseases is necessary to ensure a better quality of life,” she says.

Eva is studying the roles of microglia, which are the primary immune cells of the brain, in the response to these infectious challenges. She recently received a Graduate Grant worth $22,000 a year for two years from the Branch Out Neurological Foundation to support this work.

Microglia are required for proper functioning of the brain, as well as provide support for learning and memory formation. When we age or contract an infection, however, their activity is altered. The cells can become passive or even promote tissue-damaging activities.

“In our model of infection induced by a synthetic viral stimulant during aging, I aim to explore different sides of microglial character and their function with the help of confocal microscopy, state-of-art electron microscopy, and proteomics. Moreover, I will employ a series of behavioural tests to assess the impact of aging, both on its own and combined with the infectious challenge, on cognitive skills,” she says.

Eva will also study the connection between the gut microbiome and the brain’s microglia. “I hope to unveil another piece of puzzle in the relationship of diet and brain,” she explains. In particular, Eva will test the effectiveness of ketogenic diet as a form of treatment. The hope is that this diet will increase the host’s capability to resist the disease, thus lessening its impact on the brain and allowing for a healthier aging.

As with the other research projects in the Tremblay Lab, Eva’s project will focus on the development of microglial strategies promoting stress resilience, healthy cognitive aging, and the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. It will also help fulfill one of the primary goals of Branch Out Foundation, which is promoting the treatment of neurological disorders using novel, alternative, and non-pharmaceutical approaches.