Tristan Qingyun Li, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Genetics at Washington University School of Medicine, has been named a Scott-Gentle Foundation Investigator in his receipt of a two-year, $70,000 2021 Brain & Behavior Research Foundation grant. The Foundation is sponsored by donors who designate the recipient of their award based on the research they are most passionate about seeing advanced. This funding will be used to investigate the relationship between maternal-derived immune cells and the incidence of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia, in offspring.
“My lab is interested in the development of innate immune cells in the early embryonic brain,” said Li. “This grant helps to jump-start a new research direction where we investigate how a rare maternal immune population at the maternal-fetal interface may contribute to neuropsychiatric disorders in offspring.”
Activation of the maternal immune system early in pregnancy is associated with higher occurrences of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders across species, independent of genetic predisposition. The Li lab recently discovered a rare population of mature immune cells in the developing fetal tissue that originate from the pregnant mother. These cells are present before the fetus’s own immune cells have developed and therefore might confer immunity to an otherwise unprotected fetus. Whether and how the maternal-derived immune cells drive the increased incidence of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders following maternal immune activation remain unclear. Importantly, these maternal-derived cells might be dysregulated during maternal immune activation, thereby contributing to brain disorders such as autism or schizophrenia.
The invasion of these maternal immune cells into the fetal tissue coincides with the development of fetal immune cells that protect against infection. Among these developing immune cells are fetal microglia that are responsible for modulating neurogenesis and pruning synapses to establish proper neural circuits. Given the coincidence of maternal-derived immune cells entering fetal tissue as fetal microglia are developing, neurological disorders might arise through aberrant interactions between these maternal immune cells and microglia. Work supported by Li’s Brain & Behavior Research Foundation grant will implement single-cell RNA sequencing in animal models to probe how maternal-derived immune cells might induce microglial dysregulation to become a driver of neurological disorders.