The overarching goal of research in the Bilbo lab is to understand the mechanisms by which the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems interact, and how these interactions influence behavioral outcomes such as cognition, emotion and addiction. The immune system is well characterized for its critical role in host defense. Far beyond this limited role however, there is mounting evidence for the vital role the immune system plays within the brain, in both normal, “homeostatic” processes (e.g., sleep, metabolism, memory), as well as in pathology, when the dysregulation of immune molecules may occur. We believe this recognition is especially critical in the area of brain development. Microglia and astrocytes, the primary immunocompetent cells of the CNS, are involved in every major aspect of brain development and function, including axonal migration and synaptogenesis, synaptic pruning, apoptosis, and angiogenesis. Cytokines such as interleukin-[IL]-1 beta, tumor necrosis factor [TNF], and IL-6 are produced by glia within the CNS, and are implicated in synaptic scaling, long-term potentiation, and neurogenesis. Importantly, cytokines are involved in both injury and repair, and the conditions underlying these distinct outcomes are under intense investigation and debate. Notably, evidence from both animal and human studies implicates the immune system in a number of disorders with known or suspected developmental origins, including schizophrenia, autism, and cognitive dysfunction.
Thus, the proximate goal of our research program is to determine how seemingly disparate challenges during the perinatal period of life, such as infection, diet, stressors, or drugs of abuse, may converge on the immune system and thereby markedly influence brain development, as well as cognitive and affective behaviors throughout the remainder of the lifespan. We collaborate with clinical research groups to translate our findings to human populations.