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Author Donna Jackson Nakazawa searches for answers, cell by cell

Donna Jackson NakazawaDavid Wilson for The Boston Globe (custom credit)

Donna Jackson Nakazawa came to her latest book as both a science journalist and a patient. Between 2001 and 2005, she lived through two bouts of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, spending months hospitalized and bedridden at home. In addition to the paralyzing effects of the autoimmune disease, Jackson Nakazawa began noticing cognitive symptoms as well. “I found my brain kind of stuttering,” she said, “I’d try to tie my daughter’s shoes and I’d be back to bunny loops. I just had this feeling that my brain was not my own.”

Doctors said she was just depressed, a natural consequence of her situation. But Jackson Nakazawa suspected there was some connection between her physical illness and her brain, and she began scouring the research, “in a desperate search for my own answers, but also because I’m a science nerd,” she said. “I started to see these studies coming out.” The star of the studies was a brain cell called microglia, previously discounted as boring robot cells, tasked with simply cleaning up brain clutter.


But new research suggested that microglia act like white blood cells, surging to protect against threats to the brain — and sometimes going too far, causing the loss of crucial synaptic connections, damaging cognition and other brain functions, leading to mental disorders, including Alzheimer’s. Many of the scientists leading the way are women, including Harvard neuroscientist Beth Stevens, who is among the researchers Jackson Nakazawa profiles in her new book, “The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine.” Women suffer disproportionately from both autoimmune diseases and mental disorders, including Alzheimer’s.

“People are suffering,” Jackson Nakazawa said. “And this cell is causing a sea change in the research field for new possibilities for treatment to be added to the toolbox. It’s time for more help, and there is a lot coming.”


Donna Jackson Nakazawa will be in conversation with Beth Stevens at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, at the Harvard Science Center, 1 Oxford St., Cambridge.