A new study published in Nature Communications, led by UBC Psychiatry Research Associate Dr. Louis-Philippe Bernier in Dr. Brian MacVicar’s lab, is one of the first to look at immunometabolism in the brain. The team studied the metabolic plasticity of microglia, the immune cells of the brain which act as the main line of defence in the central nervous system. These cells typically use glucose to function, but a few years ago Dr. Bernier noticed that when he removed glucose from his experiments, the microglia kept functioning normally. This new study found that microglia were able to continue functioning in a glucose-limited environment, and further revealed that microglia switched to metabolising glutamine—an amino acid found in high concentrations in the brain—as their main source of energy.
The findings from this study could have broad implications when it comes to providing insight into disease. Glucose levels can decrease in stroke as well as diabetes, and research has shown that energy metabolism is impaired in many neurodegenerative diseases. Having a better understanding of the specific energy requirements of microglia could have important implications for brain health.