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double-stranded RNA

How Double-Stranded RNA Protects the Brain Against Infection While Making Damaging Neuroinflammation More Likely

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

An enlarged white neuron containing yellow glowing double-stranded RNA on a dark blue background with small neurons.
A neuron (white) with double-stranded RNA (yellow). Credit: Donny Bliss, NIH.

When you get a run-of-the-mill viral infection, after a few days of symptoms your immune system typically fends off the bug, and you’ll make a full recovery. In rare cases, a virus can infect the brain. This can lead to much bigger problems, including cognitive impairments known as “brain fog,” other neuropsychiatric symptoms, potentially irreversible brain damage, or even death. For this reason, the brain, more than other parts of the body, relies heavily on immune responses that can control viral infections immediately.

Now some intriguing findings from an NIH-funded team reported in Science Immunology help to explain how the brain is protected against infections.1 However, the findings also highlight a serious downside: these same mechanisms that protect the brain also leave it especially vulnerable to damaging levels of neuroinflammation.

The new findings may help to explain what goes on in the brains of people with a wide range of neurodegenerative conditions, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s disease. They also point to promising targets for developing treatments that might turn inflammatory immune responses in the brain up or down, as desired, to treat these and other serious conditions. 

How does it work? The key is double-stranded RNA (dsRNA).

RNA molecules are readouts of genetic information in DNA that carry instructions for building the proteins that carry out various cell functions. RNA molecules in our cells are most often in single-stranded or short dsRNA form. In contrast, lengthy dsRNAs are a hallmark of viruses. When a virus invades our cells, our immune system’s first line of defense can sense those long viral dsRNAs and trigger a response.

But it turns out that dsRNAs aren’t unique to viruses, as the new study highlights. The researchers, led by Tyler Dorrity and Heegwon Shin, both members of Hachung Chung’s lab at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, found that human neurons—even when they’re normal and healthy—also have exceptionally high levels of long dsRNAs.

Their lab studies in cells and tissues show that these dsRNAs in neurons can trigger an inflammatory immune response just as they do in viruses. By manipulating neurons in a way that cut back on the number of dsRNAs, they found they could lower the innate immune response. However, cells with fewer dsRNAs also showed greater susceptibility to infection with Zika viruses and herpes simplex virus, which can produce a form of viral encephalitis.

The researchers also knew from earlier studies that people with a rare, inherited condition called Aicardi-Goutières syndrome (AGS), which primarily affects the brain and immune system, carry a mutation that causes their cells to lack an enzyme needed to edit dsRNAs. As a result, neurons carrying this mutation have so many dsRNAs that it is toxic.

They went on to show that they could shift this dynamic by altering levels of two other proteins that bind RNA. The proteins normally encourage dsRNA formation in the brain. When the researchers deleted these RNA-binding proteins from the AGS neurons, those neurons made fewer long dsRNAs, which in turn protected them from the inflammatory immune responses and allowed them to survive longer. As expected, however, those cells also were more susceptible to viral infection.

The findings show how this tricky balance between susceptibility to infection and inflammation in the brain works in both health and disease. It also leads to the tantalizing suggestion that treatments targeting these various players or others in the same pathways may offer new ways of treating brain infections or neuroinflammatory conditions, by boosting or dampening dsRNA levels and the associated immune responses. As a next step, the researchers report that they’re pursuing studies to explore the role of dsRNA-triggered immune responses in ALS and Alzheimer’s, as well as in neuropsychiatric symptoms sometimes seen in people with lupus.


[1] TJ Dorrity TJ, et al. Long 3’UTRs predispose neurons to inflammation by promoting immunostimulatory double-stranded RNA formation. Science Immunology DOI: 10.1126/sciimmunol.adg2979 (2023).

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institute of General Medical Sciences

An Evolutionary Guide to New Immunotherapies

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Credit: Dave Titensor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

One of the best ways to learn how something works is to understand how it’s built. How it came to be. That’s true not only if you play a guitar or repair motorcycle engines, but also if you study the biological systems that make life possible. Evolutionary studies, comparing the development of these systems across animals and organisms, are now leading to many unexpected biological discoveries and promising possibilities for preventing and treating human disease.

While there are many evolutionary questions to ask, Brenda Bass, a distinguished biochemist at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, has set her sights on a particularly profound one: How has innate immunity evolved through the millennia in all living things, including humans? Innate immunity is the immune system’s frontline defense, the first responders that take control of an emerging infectious situation and, if needed, signal for backup.

Exploring the millennia for clues about innate immunity takes a special team, and Bass has assembled a talented one. It includes her Utah colleague Nels Elde, a geneticist; immunologist Dan Stetson, University of Washington, Seattle; and biochemist Jane Jackman, Ohio State University, Columbus.

With a 2020 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, this hard-working team will embark on studies looking back at 450 million years of evolution: the point in time when animals diverged to develop very distinct methods of innate immune defense [1]. The team members hope to uncover new possibilities encoded in the innate immune system, especially those that might be latent but still workable. The researchers will then explore whether their finds can be repurposed not only to boost our body’s natural response to external threats but also to internal threats like cancer.

Bass brings a unique perspective to the project. As a postdoc in the 1980s, she stumbled upon a whole new class of enzymes, called ADARs, that edit RNA [2]. Their function was mysterious at the time. It turns out that ADARs specifically edit a molecule called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). When viruses infect cells in animals, including humans, they make dsRNA, which the innate immune system detects as a sign that a cell has been invaded.

It also turns out that animal cells make their own dsRNA. Over the years, Bass and her lab have identified thousands of dsRNAs made in animal cells—in fact, a significant number of human genes produce dsRNA [3]. Also interesting, ADARs are crucial to marking our own dsRNA as “self” to avoid triggering an immune response when we don’t need it [4].

Bass and others have found that evolution has produced dramatic differences in the biochemical pathways powering the innate immune system. In vertebrate animals, dsRNA leads to release of the immune chemical interferon, a signaling pathway that invertebrate species don’t have. Instead, in response to detecting dsRNA from an invader, and repelling it, worms and other invertebrates trigger a gene-silencing pathway known as RNA interference, or RNAi.

With the new funding, Bass and team plan to mix and match immune strategies from simple and advanced species, across evolutionary time, to craft an entirely new set of immune tools to fight disease. The team will also build new types of targeted immunotherapies based on the principles of innate immunity. Current immunotherapies, which harness a person’s own immune system to fight disease, target infections, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. But they work through our second-line adaptive immune response, which is a biological system unique to vertebrates.

Bass and her team will first hunt for more molecules like ADARs: innate immune checkpoints, as they refer to them. The name comes from a functional resemblance to the better-known adaptive immune checkpoints PD-1 and CTLA-4, which sparked a revolution in cancer immunotherapy. The team will run several screens that sort molecules successful at activating innate immune responses—both in invertebrates and in mammals—hoping to identify a range of durable new immune switches that evolution skipped over but that might be repurposed today.

Another intriguing direction for this research stems from the observation that decreasing normal levels of ADARs in tumors kickstarts innate immune responses that kill cancer cells [5]. Along these lines, the scientists plan to test newly identified immune switches to look for novel ways to fight cancer where existing approaches have not worked.

Evolution is the founding principle for all of biology—organisms learn from what works to improve their ability to survive. In this case, research to re-examine such lessons and apply them for new uses may help transform bygone evolution into a therapeutic revolution!


[1] Evolution of adaptive immunity from transposable elements combined with innate immune systems. Koonin EV, Krupovic M. Nat Rev Genet. 2015 Mar;16(3):184-192.

[2] A developmentally regulated activity that unwinds RNA duplexes. Bass BL, Weintraub H. Cell. 1987 Feb 27;48(4):607-613.

[3] Mapping the dsRNA World. Reich DP, Bass BL. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2019 Mar 1;11(3):a035352.

[4] To protect and modify double-stranded RNA – the critical roles of ADARs in development, immunity and oncogenesis. Erdmann EA, Mahapatra A, Mukherjee P, Yang B, Hundley HA. Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2021 Feb;56(1):54-87.

[5] Loss of ADAR1 in tumours overcomes resistance to immune checkpoint blockade. Ishizuka JJ, Manguso RT, Cheruiyot CK, Bi K, Panda A, et al. Nature. 2019 Jan;565(7737):43-48.


Bass Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Elde Lab (University of Utah)

Jackman Lab (Ohio State University, Columbus)

Stetson Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)

Bass/Elde/Jackman/Stetson Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute