Blog Post

The Immune System-Brain Connection as a Metaphor for Antivirus Programs and Computers Imagining New Possibilities

This is Karna Mital, a current Duke undergraduate in Cathy Davidson's "This is Your Brain on the Internet" class. Through our class, I heard about Brain Awareness Week organized by the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, and attended a talk given by Dr. Staci Bilbo on March 14 about "The Mind-Body Connection: the secret life of your immune system." I was really intrigued by the talk, but unsure how to relate it to the other key theme of our class, the Internet. Later in the semester, our class did a unit on Artificial Intelligence, and discussed the latest advancements in AI and the differences that exist between computers and human brains. There are many such differences - for example, the brain is fast because it filters and interprets our sensory data so we can quickly jump to conclusions, while computers are fast because they can run millions of computations per second. Though we didn't discuss it in class, I later contemplated another difference between the brain and computers. Namely, the brain and the immune system work together to defend the body from infection, fight pathogens when infection strikes, and remember the bug so it can never wreak the same havoc again. On the other hand, antivirus software and computer processors have a much different relationship; they may cooperate in keeping viruses and malware away, but once the malicious code strikes, the computer capitulates, with zero hope of recovery without human intervention. How might software and processors work together better in real time? Can the connection between the brain and the immune system inspire a new paradigm for adaptive improvement in the antivirus-processor system?

             At this point, it would be useful to have an understanding of the relationship between the brain and the immune system. Many of us may be familiar with how the brain affects the immune system for example, when we are stressed, our immune function weakens and we tend to get sick more easily. But, as Dr. Bilbo discussed in her talk, the immune system affects our mood and cognition, too! Via chemicals called cytokines, the immune system communicates the state of the external environment within itself and to all the other cells of the body, including neurons. Through these cytokines, for example, the immune system causes us to feel sick; fatigue, fever, cough, and all those other unpleasant symptoms are brought upon us by the immune system so that we rest, hydrate, and otherwise support our body while it fights off infection. Interestingly, these same cytokines, when over-activated over the long term instead of just the infection period, can lead to ailments including mood disorders, obesity, schizophrenia, and Alzheimers disease. For example, Alzheimers disease results from the cytokine interleukin-1 (IL-1) being over-expressed; IL-1 is needed for memory formation, but excess causes disorder. The immune system is also responsible for keeping the brain free of excess neurons; during development, and even in the adult brain, unneeded neurons are engulfed by microglia (the macrophages of the brain) in a process called synaptic pruning. Thus, the immune system, beyond keeping us healthy, is quite important for the brain during development and for healthy brain function in adult life; there is a risk for disorders, but the benefit of a better-functioning brain far outweighs it.

            So, how might antivirus programs work more effectively with computers, in warding off viruses or just helping the computer to function better? On the virus front, aside from blocking viruses from being downloaded via the Internet, the antivirus software could continually scan certain directories that are typical targets of infection. Every time the user or the computer creates a new file, the antivirus software could flag it with a self tag, and then as it scans the specified directories, if it finds files without the self tag it could immediately quarantine them into a more harmless directory, until it can be verified that the file is safe. If such a file is identified, the antivirus software could communicate to the processor to temporarily freeze or slow the non-essential processes, to prevent the potential virus from gaining a foothold. Yes, such a system would likely yield many false positives (as with the annoying User Account Control alerts in Windows), but as it is optimized over time the nuisance will die down and it may prevent virus and malware infections. Additionally, if it was not as obvious before, the sites where the malicious files may have come from would be even more apparent, because the scan would be running live and alert about problematic files instantly. Even if the computer wont remember, the user certainly will!

While the antivirus program runs this scan, it could also run a type of "disk cleanup" in real time. As the computer accumulates data it will probably not use again - like installers, articles you only read once, data in the browser cache - the antivirus program could erase it without needing prompting by the user. This version of synaptic pruning would need some fine-tuning to avoid deleting important files, and maybe you do want to keep what's in the browser cache, but specifying file directories to clean each hour or after each browser session might go a long way. Our bodies can clean up excess neurons on their own, so why do we have to regularly move useless files to the Recycle Bin? As the antivirus software continues to do these disk cleanups, instead of checking all the specified directories each time it could first focus on the directories that tended to fill up in the past; incorporating this information into the process would reduce the time and the computing power needed to run them.

            To those better versed in computer science than I, if the possibilities I have discussed are already implemented, I do apologize. But to all readers, as we move forward into a world increasingly dependent on technology, it is always useful to see how nature and evolution dealt with the same problems we are confronted with. In the case of the brain to immune system connection, antivirus programs may not be able to fight a virus infection in real time, but they can collaborate better with computers to prevent infection. 


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