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Monica Carson

Professor and Chair of Biomedical Sciences
Monica Carson
Exploring Early Alzheimer’s Detection

More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease today. As the nation’s population of aging Baby Boomers increases, the rates for this and other neurodegenerative diseases are skyrocketing.

Monica Carson’s research looks at the way the brain and immune system interact in both health and disease. Until recently, the brain and immune systems were believed to be completely separate and non-interacting in healthy individuals. In fact, interactions of any kind between these two systems were believed to be a major cause of neurodegenerative and neurologic diseases. However, her research finds that not only do the brain and immune system interact from infancy to old age, it’s imperative that these two systems constantly “play well” together to maintain brain health. With this knowledge, we can gain a better understanding of how to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s and neurodevelopmental disorders like autism.

Areas of Expertise

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • Secretary and President-elect, International Society for Neurochemistry
  • Director, Center for Glial-Neuronal Interactions
  • Editor-In-Chief, ASN NEURO
  • President, American Society for Neurochemistry (2009)
  • Chair, National Multiple Sclerosis Society Pilot Grant Study Section (2011–13)
  • Award in Neuroimmunology, Dana Foundation (2008)


Q: What has your research found about the interaction between the brain and the immune system?
It turns out, there’s constant communication back and forth between the immune system and the brain at all ages even before birth. The brain even has a full time immune cell that colonizes the brain before birth and stays in the brain your entire life: the microglia. Microglia are a type of macrophage (or what I call “the moms of the brain”) that constantly checks on other brain cells to ensure everything is in working properly. Our work has shown how loss of a single molecule called TREM2 changes how microglia supports normal development of brain neurons and repair of damaged brain tissue. Recently, mutations in TREM2 found to be associated with a three-fold increase risk in Alzheimer’s disease and as well as other forms of dementia. Our studies help to identify how specific defects in the brain’s macrophage lead to specific losses of brain function and dementia.

Q: What are the implications of your research on treatments?
Previously the assumption was that too much of an immune system attack was causing harm but now we’re seeing that it might also be too much of the repair process or a repair occurring too soon while the attack is still underway. Instead of an all-on or all-off approach of the past, our findings indicate that drugs and treatments should be more selective and must keep in mind that this attack/repair balance needs to change depending both on age and on the type of brain injury or infection.

Q: What is the impact of your research on the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it is projected that the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer's disease may nearly triple by 2050, raising the nation’s cost of care from $203 billion to $1.2 trillion unless new findings pave the way for more effective medical treatments to prevent, slow or stop the disease. Previously, treatments had been designed to prevent communication between the brain and immune system, cutting off this essential interaction and therefore preventing critical immune support of the brain. Our research works to understand what’s normally going on in the immune system to keep the brain functioning versus what shouldn’t be going on and should be prevented. There are many contributing factors to Alzheimer’s disease and if we can identify the many pathways involved such as those revealed by gene mutations, we can create specific targeted treatments unique to the physiology of each individual.

Q: What’s next for your research?
We are following up on repair pathways that we can manipulate to foster optimal brain function. We are specifically testing some well-tolerated cancer therapies for novel approaches to limit and/or reset the balance between attack:repair pathways within the brain. However, our studies are also leading us to identify age-specific microglia functions required during infancy and childhood, times when we have many of our first encounters with infections. Surprisingly, we are finding that microglia dysfunction during these early insults contributes not only to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders but also to increased risk for neurodegenerative diseases of old age. Our goal is to both identify risk factors and developmental windows for risk for in pregnancy, infancy, childhood and adolescence. If we can identify early periods contributing to later disease, these are the first steps in prevention as well as for therapeutic strategies aimed at stages before too much irreversible brain damage has occurred.

Q: What does Living the Promise mean to you?
Living the Promise at UC Riverside is a promise for better research so that our community can benefit from better living and better health. This kind of research cannot be done in the private sector because private companies must report to shareholders in short-term, profit-driven periods, while the issues that we’re tackling are long-term, tough research problems. My team and I have spent more than a decade pursuing the contributions of immune cells and microglia to brain function, which will have tremendous impacts in the health of our community and the world.

Q: Why is UCR a great place to do research?
Being here at Riverside is a place of promise — we’re building a new school of medicine to serve the Inland Empire and surrounding communities, However, I’m not only part of one educational or research unit. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with folks from so many units and departments all over our campus. At UCR, we get the close, friendly and collaborative community that you’d see at a small college, paired with the strength and breadth of a large research institution.

Q: In your spare time, what are you reading (books, blogs, Twitter accounts, websites, etc.)? What makes these interesting for you?
I mostly read non-fiction and essays. Currently, I have enjoyed Team of Rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln. It is not only an outstanding discussion of history and the impact of an important individual, but also on reconciling conflicting and deeply held opposing positions to address important issues.

I also like science fiction. This literature is fun not only for the new ideas but also as a method to consider difficult topics by placing them in novel theoretic contexts. At UCR, we are lucky to have the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction, which is the largest publicly accessible collection of science fiction in the world. I recommend taking a tour to see this collection, which includes the 1517 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia and a first edition of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein from 1818. It's an eye-opening collection worth seeing!

Q: What advice do you have for students graduating in the next five years?
My advice is not novel. Like many before me, I suggest students follow their passion, pursue excellence and don’t be afraid to combine multiple approaches or try alternative or novel career choices. These suggestions aren’t offered as a way to make things easy. Rather it is hoped that this type of an approach is what keeps it worthwhile and rewarding when things do become difficult.

Monica Carson "The interactions of the brain and immune system in both health and disease to better understand how to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s and neurodevelopmental disorders like autism."

—Monica Carson
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