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You’d think that scientists would pretty much have the body mapped out by now, right? After all, they’ve been studying human anatomy since ancient Egyptian times! However, in 2013, a new knee ligament was defined for the first time, although it had been hiding in plain sight for some time. Or take the lymphatic system as an example – that’s been documented extensively over the years. This intricate series of vessels is an essential part of the immune system, transporting a fluid (lymph) containing infection-fighting white blood cells throughout the body, as well as draining waste from tissues and into our bloodstream.
Until recently it was thought that the lymphatic system stopped at the base of the skull, with no physical connection to the brain and central nervous system. But exciting new research may prove the textbooks wrong.
Scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the U.S. have discovered, contrary to what we previously understood, that the brain is actually directly connected to the immune system by tiny lymphatic vessels, which have simply been very well hidden. They discovered these vessels situated in the meninges (the membranes that enclose the brain), and have suggested that they may carry away waste fluid and immune cells from the cerebrospinal fluid.
This exciting discovery finally answers the question of how the central nervous system rids itself of waste immune cells (scientists were aware the meninges contained immune cells, but didn’t know how they entered or left the brain), while raising many more questions. The discovery might have implications for neurological diseases like MS that involve the immune system, which makes it likely to open up whole new avenues for research and even potential treatment approaches. It’s possible, for example, that malfunction of these vessels could be involved in the inflammation seen in MS; something scientists will now be looking into with great interest.
Obviously a lot more research is needed – most of the study was performed in mice models, so there’s no knowing if the human brain works in exactly the same way – but it’s great to see that neuroimmunology never sleeps, and this is definitely an exciting time! And, don’t worry, we’ll be sure to keep you updated on any more breakthroughs. In the meantime, feel free to dazzle dinner party guests with your newfound knowledge of brain anatomy. ‘Meningeal lymphatic vessels, you say?’