Researchers Unsettle Science: Brain Linked To Immune System Via Previously Unknown Lymphatic Vessels — What Now?

A major discovery in the fight against neurological diseases was made by researchers who found lymphatic vessels connected to the brain that somehow managed to escape detection for decades. The idea that the brain and the immune system are somehow directly linked has been discussed ad nauseum in theory and with anecdotes, but until now, no scientists were able to find the physical link that could back up this theory.

Dr. Kevin Lee, chairman of the University of Virginia Department of Neuroscience, says, “They’ll have to change the textbooks.” Lee says the discovery of the lymphatic system which is connected to the brain was very clear right off the bat, but that many studies have followed so that the researchers could be sure. They say that it’s shocking that the lymphatic vessels had never been found before, given that the system has been mapped out extensively already. The researchers say that this new link will have major implications for the treatment and understanding of neurological disorders including MS, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease. This discovery, they say, will fundamentally change the way science views the brain’s interactions with the immune system.

Armed with this new information, the University of Virginia School of Medicine press release claims that a “major gap in the understanding of the human body” has now been revealed. Dr. Jonathan Kipnis, professor in the UVA Department of Neuroscience, says that (though it was never known before) the brain is like all other tissue in the body, in that it is connected to the immune system.

“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… We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role.”

The lymphatic system’s function includes removing interstitial fluid and transporting white blood cells to and from the lymph nodes. It’s the network of tissues and organs that includes the tonsils, spleen, adenoids and thymus.

University of California, Irvine’s health psychology professor Sarah Pressman called it one of the most important immunology findings she has seen in her entire career. Dr. Shanhong Lu, integrative medical doctor, pointed out that the finding also offers the connection between leaky gut and mental health.

The discovery of the lymphatic vessels connected to the brain was the direct result of the work of Dr. Antoine Louvea (pictured above on the left) after he created a method to mount a mouse’s brain membranes onto a single slide. He then noticed a pattern that shockingly looked like vessels. He tested the cells to see if they could possibly be lymphatic vessels.

“The impossible existed,” the press release stated. Louvea recalled that he called Kipnis (pictured above on the right) over to the microscope to share in what he realized was a major breakthrough in neurological and medical science in the making. He says the brain’s lymphatic vessels were very well hidden and follow a major blood vessel into the sinuses near the brain. After the discovery, Dr. Tajie Harris was consulted for live imaging of the vessels. Research associate Igor Smirnov’s surgical skills were also critical in the study that the researchers published on their findings.

Jon Laman, immunologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, explained that the discovery of lymphatic vessels in the dura mater, the meninges closest to the skull, is monumental, according to The Scientist.

“For many years, we said ‘There’s no lymphatic drainage from the brain,’ but this, in a way, is a breakthrough study because it shows the presence and functionality of a lymphatic vessel in the dura mater.”

“So there’s a direct connection between the CSF and the draining lymph nodes,” Kipnis said, explaining that scientists, before this discovery, believed that immune cells only ended up in the brain during an infection.

Though the implications of the discovery are still being considered, thousands of parents are asking specifically how these findings will impact the study of autism. Some are even wondering if this could re-open debates regarding purported vaccine risks or enhance the emerging research into antibiotic risks and benefits.

The research team did not mention implications for vaccine or antibiotic research, but eager parents are already pleading for more research, given that the authors of the study mentioned that autism research could be affected by their discovery. Could herbs and foods that boost lymphatic functioning actually address some autism symptoms? What kinds of new medicines might be on the horizon for the one in 68 children in the United States who have been diagnosed with ASD?

The Alzheimer’s community is similarly pleading for more research in light of the new breakthrough discovery. Is this the link that lends substance to anecdotes of Manual Lymphatic Drainage therapy helping with Alzheimer’s disease symptoms? How can they make the best of this discovery before it’s too late for their loved ones or themselves?

Now that the findings have been published in Nature, Dr. Kipnis says the team believes the existence of the lymphatic vessels connected to the brain raises a tremendous number of questions that simply must be answered. A storm of questions is brewing and a myriad of new findings could be on the horizon. This discovery overturned previously held scientific beliefs, and the team says that “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,” reminding the medical community that even when it believes “the science is settled,” stirring the dust back up could be one accidental discovery away.

Now that a connection between the immune system and the brain has been physically located with the discovery of these lymphatic vessels, what kind of research would you like to see?

[Photo credit: UVA Today]