A recent study has turned decades of medical education on its head by reporting a direct connection between the brain and the immune system.
While a claim this large seems out of the blue, much research has gone into it, and now that it’s published it could mean big changes ahead for research into diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.
Published in the journal Nature, the new discovery – made by researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine – claims that the brain is connected to the immune system by specific vessels.
The only controversial aspect to this finding is that up until now, these vessels were thought not to exist.
A Game Changing Discovery
“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 the meningeal lymphatic vessels,”(1) said professor Jonathan Kipnis.
“It changes entirely the way we perceive the neuro-immune interaction.”
Although initially skeptical, Kipnis now believes that this discovery is one of the major breakthroughs of our day. Upon conducting further research, Kipnis and several other co-authors believe that the vessels are real, and serve to carry white blood cells(2).
A New Understanding Of MS And Alzheimer’s
The workings of the disease multiple sclerosis are currently not entirely understood – it’s known as an example of the immune system attacking the brain(3), but scientists don’t fully understand why. This new discovery could pave the way for researchers to form an understanding of how the attacks experienced by MS patients occur, and maybe even how to stop them.
Just as exciting are the possibilities for Alzheimer’s disease research. While the cause of multiple sclerosis are relatively unknown, the causes of Alzheimer’s are even more controversial in the scientific and medical communities(4). It’s possible it has an origin within the immune system, the authors of the recent study suggest.
“We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role,” says Kipnis.
A Team Effort
The study credits several researchers with making the discovery possible. Among the professionals responsible for the groundbreaking research are Dr. Tajie Harris and Dr. Antoine Louveau, as well as a team who imaged the vessels in action on live animals(5).
The discovery also reinforces previous research indicating that immune cells are present even in healthy brains – an idea that was until recently considered fiction(6).
Reactions to the research so far have ranged from shock to disbelief:
“The first time these guys showed me the basic result, I just said one sentence: ‘They’ll have to change the textbooks’,” said Kevin Lee, chair of the University of Virginia’s Department of Neuroscience.