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Researchers at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at the University of Oxford mapped dopamine and the consequences of its release to the immunological synapse.

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The neurotransmitter dopamine, long associated with reward-motivated behaviour in the brain, has been shown to play a key role in the human immune response in an article published this week in Nature. The research has demonstrated for the first time how human immune cells use dopamine, in specialised vesicles localized to the immunological synapse, to accelerate the immune response. This work can now be used as a basis for the development of new therapies to treat immune diseases and improve vaccines.

The collaborative research involving groups from Australia, Italy, Germany and the UK predicts that the neurotransmitter dopamine is used to accelerate antibody production in humans, which helps us to fight off infections more quickly. The dopamine is released from specialised immune cells, called helper T lymphocytes, which use cellular machinery normally found in neurons to allow the release of the neurotransmitter into the immunological synapse formed with antibody producing B lymphocytes.  The groups of Carola Vinuesa at the Australian National University and Claudio Dongoli at San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milan discovered dopamine production by a rare T cell subset in the tissue region in humans associated with high affinity antibody production, and the immediate impact of dopamine on antibody producing cells.  Dr. David Saliba, Mr Salvatore Valvo and Prof Mike Dustin’s group in the Kennedy Institute, University of Oxford demonstrated how this machinery is positioned within the immunological synapse of the T lymphocytes and identified the signal stimulated by the released dopamine.   The group of Michael Meyer-Herman at Hemlotz Centre, Germany then used a modelling approach to predict that dopamine accelerates antibody production compared to responses in laboratory mice, which lack this mechanism.  The lead author, Ilenia Papa, coordinated all the efforts across all the centres.

Dr. Saliba says, "This study has highlighted important parallels of cellular communication in the immune and nervous systems. Using state of the art facilities at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology we were able to visualize the location of dopamine containing vesicles and the consequence of dopamine communication across the immunological synapse."

The work was funded in part by Human Frontiers Science Program, an organisation funded by the G7 nations and European Commission to support international collaboration. Prof Dustin, who has been working on the immunological synapse since the 1990s, highlighted the importance of such interactions, “This is a great example of international collaboration as the conclusions would not be possible without unique contributions from experts based in 4 nations.”

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