Past Stetten Lectures
10/24/2007 3:00 PM
10/24/2007 4:00 PM
Stetten Lecture videocast
Speaker: Kevin J. Tracey, M.D.Director and Chief Executive, Feinstein Institute for Medical Research
Professor and President, North Shore-LIJ Graduate School of Molecular Medicine
Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgeon by training and a highly cited immunologist, has uncovered groundbreaking evidence that the brain directly controls the immune system. His work revealed that the vagus nerve, which regulates heart rate, digestion, and other essential functions, also governs how the immune system responds to threat. Tracey found that signals from the vagus nerve can temper the production of cytokines, immune system proteins whose overproduction can lead to dangerous inflammatory responses such as sepsis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and hemorrhagic shock.
Tracey has shown that stimulating the vagus nerve inhibits cytokine release. Specifically, the firing vagus nerve produces acetylcholine, to which macrophages and other immune system cells respond through a7 acetylcholine receptors on their surfaces. By activating these receptors, the vagus nerve suppresses inflammation and prevents tissue damage. Tracey calls this brain circuitry the “inflammatory reflex.” Unlike anti-inflammatory agents that accumulate gradually through the bloodstream, the neurological reflex can respond rapidly to signs of injury and inflammation to restrain cytokine action.
The vagus nerve winds through the thorax and abdomen to interact with major internal organs, including the spleen, a key source of cytokines. Tracey has identified the spleen as a critical site of convergence between the immune and nervous systems. His discoveries have opened new avenues for potentially treating the many acute and chronic diseases stemming from an overactive inflammatory response. Studies are under way to determine the feasibility of therapeutics that limit the magnitude of immune reaction by either stimulating vagus nerve activity or activating the acetylcholine response pathway.
Since 1992, Tracey has headed a laboratory at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and the North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York. He earned a B.S. in chemistry from Boston College in 1979 and an M.D. from Boston University in 1983. Tracey completed his clinical training in neurosurgery at the New York Hospital in 1992. His honors include election to the American Society for Clinical Investigation in 2001 and receipt of lectureships from the Karolinska Institute, Harvard University, Washington University in St. Louis, and others. Tracey is editor in chief of
Molecular Medicine and advisory editor of
The Journal of Experimental Medicine. He is the author of 240 research papers. The Institute for Scientific Information named him one of the most highly cited researchers in immunology in 2005. Tracey has also written a book,
Fatal Sequence: The Killer Within, about his experience caring for a young patient with severe sepsis, an event that helped draw him into immunology research.
NIGMS has supported Tracey’s research since 1999.
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