Researchers at the University of Virginia have made a startling new discovery that has generated a great a deal of buzz and hope, and some skepticism, in the scientific and medical communities. While studying the brain coverings of mice, researcher Antoine Louveau, PhD. discovered lymphatic vessels where they have supposedly never existed. Until now, it has been widely accepted that the lymphatic system ends at the base of the skull and has no direct connection to the central nervous system. These newly found vessels contradict this “fact” and basically blow the doors off the old paradigm that refutes a direct link between the immune and central nervous systems. In fact, this new research “rewrites the textbooks”, essentially redrawing the anatomical charts of the lymphatic system to include expansion into the brain.
Up to this point there has been no clear answer to the question of why neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, MS and Autism are often accompanied by a compromised immune system. Some have speculated that certain lifestyle choices lead to both, such as in the case of an elevated occurrence of Alzheimer’s among diabetics. But now, in light of this new research, scientists must consider the possibility of a more direct cause and effect relationship. To follow the breadcrumbs: The lymphatic system plays a major role in healthy immunity. Neurological disorders are often accompanied by immune dysfunction. The existence of a lymphatic system in the brain and central nervous system points to a direct correlation between impaired immunity and neurological diseases. These lymphatic vessels in the brain, which have been hidden by their close proximity to blood vessels, are the first major discovery in the map of the human body in decades, and open up hundreds of new questions, avenues of research and possibilities for the prevention and treatment of countless neurological disorders. Speculation has already been raised about the accumulation of protein chunks found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Researchers believe that these large protein particles cause the disease, but have not been able to determine their cause. Now they might surmise that healthy lymphatic vessels flush excess protein from the brain, but when these vessels are impaired they are unable to perform this function, and the proteins collect.
This shines a brighter light on anecdotal studies where manual lymphatic drainage has led to a reduction of some Alzheimer’s symptoms. This research also has excited parents clambering to discover if nutrition and supplementation used to buoy the lymphatic system might be employed to treat autism. For patients who suffer from neurological diseases there is hope that the same techniques used to improve lymphatic function might provide some relief from or protection against continued neurological dysfunction, and lymphatic specialists may soon find an entire new population on their plates as patients respond to the implications suggested by these findings.
While this research is groundbreaking and optimistic, some caution against putting the cart before the horse. There is as yet no definitive evidence from human trials, and time will tell if this research withstands further scrutiny. Essentially, the hope is that this exciting discovery will help researchers understand what triggers certain neurological diseases, and eventually lead to their prevention and cure. There are also questions being raised about the role these newly found vessels might play in the aging process, as they appear different with age. For now, there are far more questions than answers, but asking new questions is often the first step to uncovering new answers.