Researchers at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine have discovered vessels in the brain that are directly connected to the immune system. The discovery came as a complete surprise to neuroscientists, who had never found a mechanical connection and assumed it did not exist.

Image from article cited in this blog.

The discovery has enormous implications. As reported in NeuroScientist News: “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.” Until now, neuroscientists asked why multiple sclerosis patients had immune attacks and wondered how they could study the brain’s immune response system. Now that they have discovered the connection, “we can approach this mechanistically”, Jonathan Kipris, PhD, reports.

How Did They Miss the Connection?

Jonathan Kipnis, PhD is director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG). Antoine Louveau, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in his lab, made the discovery.  He and his associates developed a method that allowed them to mount a mouse’s meninges (membranes that cover the brain) on a single slide to examine them as a whole. Louveau modestly said, “It was fairly easy, actually” and went on to say the secret to their success was the way they fixed the meninges within the skullcap. This secured the tissue in its physiological condition. Had they not done this before they dissected it, “it wouldn’t have worked”, he continued.

When asked how neuroscientists had overlooked these lymphatic vessels for so long, Dr. Kipris said the were “very well hidden,” following a major blood vessel down into the sinuses, an area that is difficult to image. “It’s so close to the blood vessel, you just miss it,” he said.

What are the Implications of the Discovery?

“In Alzheimer’s, there are accumulations of big protein chunks in the brain,” Kipnis explained. “We think they may be accumulating in the brain because they’re not being efficiently removed by these vessels.” He also noted that the vessels look different with age, so they may play a role in ageing, too. Aside from Alzheimer’s, the newly-discovered vessels may play a role in a wide variety of neurological disorders.

The Mind-Body Connection

The mechanistic connection between the brain and immune system cannot be underestimated, but this recent discovery does not undermine the mind-body connection. Scientists have also made remarkable discoveries about the effects a person’s emotions and environment can have on their health. For example, one study discovered that grandparents who spent time with their grandchildren were less susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease than other seniors. Another study took a fresh look at addiction and discovered a surprising mind-body connection. According to author Johann Hari, an experiment with rats showed that rats who lived in a favourable environment became addicted to heroin far less than rats who lived in confined quarters without activity or association with other rats.

A holistic approach to wellness shows more promise than a one-sided mechanistic or behavioural approach. We are complex beings and natural mechanisms, our thoughts, feelings and environment all have their effects on our health and well being.