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In a world that is always moving forward, we really can’t be all that surprised that we continue to find errors in things we so long believed to be true. Scientifically and historically, it can seem like a difficult idea to grasp, as many of us had valuable information drilled into our brains from childhood and onward that fueled us to find fields we could become experts in. But this information was always meant to just help us better understand the world we live in.

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Just a couple of weeks ago, researchers at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine made a discovery which will forever alter the way we look at the brain, concluding that there is a direct connection between the brain and the immune system. This connection is by way of vessels that were previously assumed nonexistent.

Jonathan Kipnis, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and the Director of the University’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia, expressed his surprise at the discovery: “I really did not believe there were structures in the body that we were not aware of. I thought the body was mapped.”

One of the biggest questions seems to be: How, despite the fact that the lymphatic system has been so thoroughly mapped throughout the body, could these vessels have gone undetected?

There is still much to uncover about what further information this discovery will yield, but it may help open doors for the study and treatment of a variety of neurological diseases including autism, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Kipnis, questions like “How do we study the immune response of the brain?” or “Why do multiple sclerosis patients have immune system attacks?” no longer need to be answered thanks to this new discovery. “Now we can approach this mechanistically — because the brain is like every other tissue connected to the peripheral immune system through meningeal lymphatic vessels,” explained Kipnis. “We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role.”

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Kevin Lee, who chairs the Department of Neuroscience, had a very relatable response to the discovery: “I just said one sentence: ‘They’ll have to rewrite the textbooks.’ “

He also added, “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.”

Behind the discovery was the work of Antoine Louveau, a postdoctoral fellow in Kipnis’ lab. He detected the vessels after developing a method that involved mounting a mouse’s meninges, which are the membranes covering the brain, onto a single slide in order to examine them in their entirety.

Loveau then detected vessel-like patterns in the distribution of immune cells on his slides, which caused him to test for lymphatic vessels, which he found. It seemed the impossible came to be.

“Live imaging of these vessels was crucial to demonstrate their function, and it would not be possible without collaboration with Tajie Harris,” Kipnis said. Harris serves as an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and a member of the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia. Also recognized were the surgical skills of Igor Smirnov, who is a research associate in the Kipnis lab.

Many questions have been raised as a result of this discovery, especially in regards to how we can better understand the brain and the many diseases that affect it. Kipnis notes that with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, “there are accumulations of big protein chunks in the brain. We think they may be accumulating in the brain because they’re not being efficiently removed by these vessels.” He explained that, with age, the vessels look different, which means more research will need to be done to explore the role they play in aging. Many other neurological diseases will need to be reconsidered as a result as well.

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