The Vernino Lab focuses on the mechanisms of autoimmune disorders of the nervous system. We use a variety of techniques including animal physiology, cellular electrophysiology, histology, and immunology.
The immune system plays a primary role in many serious diseases of the nervous system including multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis and paraneoplastic neurologic disorders. These autoimmune disorders are important because they are potentially treatable but may be undiagnosed or frequently misdiagnosed as another untreatable condition. Over the past 10 years, new laboratory (antibody) tests have been developed to help identify autoimmune neurological disorders and many clinical syndromes have been described. This is a growing and exciting area of clinical neurology.
Our lab has a particular interest in diseases associated with antibodies against ion channels. Voltage and ligand-gated ion channels allow nerve cells to have their unique electrical properties, and such antibodies could directly change how nerve cells function. Antibodies against the acetylcholine receptor on muscle are the cause of myasthenia gravis. Recent work in the laboratory has shown that antibodies against acetylcholine receptors on certain neurons are the cause of autoimmune autonomic neuropathy (a disease which causes severe problems with the automatic functions of the body—low blood pressure, loss of sweating, salivation, and tearing, and impaired digestion). These ion channel antibodies directly affect how nerve cells function.
In addition to myasthenia and autonomic neuropathy, ion channel autoimmunity appears to be important in other neurological disorders as well, including ataxia, seizures, memory disorders and others. The laboratory research over the next few years will focus on characterizing several forms of ion channel autoimmunity using animal model systems in an effort to understand the immune mechanisms involved and the functional effects of antibodies on ion channel function. Furthermore, these studies of immune-mediated changes in ion channel function will improve our understanding of the role of specific ion channels in the normal nervous system and how nerve cells respond to immunological injury.