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UVa researchers make brainy breakthrough

The illustration at left show how scientists previously thought the lymphatic system (in green) was independent of the brain. The illustration at right shows the link discovered by UVa researchers Jonathan Kipnis and Antoine Louveau.
Illustration courtesy of UVa Health System/Anita Impagliazzo

A discovery by two University of Virginia neurology researchers has been hailed as one of the top scientific breakthroughs of the past year.

The finding of a link between the immune system and the brain by Jonathan Kipnis, a professor of neuroscience, and his doctoral student Antoine Louveau made several year-in-review lists as a top scientific discovery.

Kipnis and Louveau found that the brain has vessels that are part of the lymphatic system, which carries white blood cells throughout the body to fight infection. Scientists previously thought the brain’s immune responses were separate from the rest of the system.

“If you open any neuroscience textbook, it’s going to say that the brain doesn’t have any lymphatic system,” Louveau said. “That changed the way we think of the brain as an organism.”

These vessels, found in protective membranes known as the meninges, may help scientists better understand a range of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

For example, scientists have long suspected that Alzheimer’s has something to do with the buildup of beta-amyloid, a type of protein in the brain.

Louveau said he thinks the lymphatic system removes these proteins, and that the disease may be connected to some problem with the system.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system. Kipnis and Louveau said they hope to find out what, if any, connection it might have to the lymphatic vessels in the brain.

There’s no way to know for sure that there is any connection, Kipnis said. The researchers are setting their sights on Alzheimer’s and MS first, he said. They will have to see whether the vessels are involved in the pathology, and whether it’s possible to target them therapeutically.

It will likely be years before scientists can apply this knowledge to any treatment, Kipnis said.

“Right now, this is all speculation because we are not sure what role these vessels play in disease,” he said.

But the discovery has many observers excited. Science magazine featured the finding in its “Top 10 Science Stories of 2015,” noting that several neurological disorders are linked to inflammation in the brain, a possible immune response.
The National Institutes of Health included the story in a year-end list titled “Noteworthy Advances in Basic Research,” while The Huffington Post cited the discovery in its article “8 Fascinating Things We Learned About the Mind in 2015.”

Some say the finding could have implications for the treatment of meningitis, severe depression and autism.

Kipnis is not that bold, but he said he’s hopeful it could lead to big things down the road.

“I would hope these vessels are the central storyboard for the disease,” he said. “I believe the potential is great.”

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by THEROANOKETIMES
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length

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