New research changes map of the lymphatic system and, possibly, treatment of neurological diseases

Lymphatic System

Maps of the lymphatic system: old (left) and updated to reflect UVA’s discovery. Click on picture for larger image
(Src: University of Virginia Health)

The stunning results of a research study conducted by the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine, which were released in June of 2015, determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist, contradicting previously long-held beliefs, especially considering how extensively the lymphatic system has been mapped throughout the body. Researchers at UVA believe that the true significance of the discovery lies in the effects it could have on the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis.

According to Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, professor in the UVA Department of Neuroscience and director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG,) “Instead of asking, ‘How do we study the immune response of the brain?’ ‘Why do multiple sclerosis patients have the immune attacks?’ now we can approach this mechanistically. Because the brain is like every other tissue connected to the peripheral immune system through meningeal lymphatic vessels. It changes entirely the way we perceive the neuro-immune interaction. We always perceived it before as something esoteric that can’t be studied. But now we can ask mechanistic questions.”

“I really did not believe there are structures in the body that we are not aware of. I thought the body was mapped,” Dr. Kipnis stated. “I thought that these discoveries ended somewhere around the middle of the last century. But apparently they have not.”

According to the article “Missing link found between brain, immune system — with profound disease implications,” released by the University of Virginia Health System, the discovery was made possible by the work of Antoine Louveau, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Kipnis’ lab. The vessels were detected after Louveau developed a method to mount a mouse’s meninges – the membranes covering the brain – on a single slide so that they could be examined as a whole. The discovery means many new angles to explore when researching neurological disease.

In this video, Dr. Kipnis and Dr. Louveau discuss the research project and it’s surprising results:

The study raises some startling implications in regards to neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. “In Alzheimer’s, there are accumulations of big protein chunks in the brain. We think they may be accumulating in the brain because they’re not being efficiently removed by these vessels,” Kipnis said. “And there’s an enormous array of other neurological diseases, from autism to multiple sclerosis, that must be reconsidered in light of the presence of something science insisted did not exist.”

For more information about the study, read the complete UVA Health Services article, “Missing link found between brain, immune system — with profound disease implications.”

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Additional Research Related to Autism

In addition to the UVA study, a number of other research projects pertaining to the neurological aspects of autism have been conducted in recent years, including:

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