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viral encephalitis

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