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Newly discovered vessels link brain, immune system


Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have found a new system of functional lymphatic vessels connecting the immune system to the brain. The discovery may lead to new treatments of neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

The lymphatic vessels, which were long thought to not even exist, were discovered after a researcher developed a method to mount the membranes covering a mouse’s brain. The vessels were found in to follow a major blood vessel down into the sinuses, which is a difficult area for scientific instruments to image. These structures show all of the hallmarks of lymphatic endothelial cells, are able to carry both fluid and immune cells from the cerebrospinal fluid, and are connected to the deep cervical lymph nodes. The unique location of these vessels may have prevented their discovery to date, contributing to the long-held belief that lymphatic vasculature in the central nervous system was absent.

Kevin Lee, Ph.D., chairman of the UVA Department of Neuroscience, described his reaction to the discovery by Kipnis' lab: "The first time these guys showed me the basic result, I just said one sentence: 'They'll have to change the textbooks.' There has never been a lymphatic system for the central nervous system, and it was very clear from that first singular observation – and they've done many studies since then to bolster the finding – that it will fundamentally change the way people look at the central nervous system's relationship with the immune system."

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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