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Lymphatic Brain Discovery

Specialized MRI Scans Discover Body’s Lymphatic System in Brain

Centuries-old Idea Vindicated; Researchers Eager to Probe for Brain Disease Links


Charlottesville, VA — “You’d think we’d know all there is to know about the brain’s basic anatomy,” recently blogged National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Francis Collins. 


But “contrary to what I learned in medical school,” and verified by a groundbreaking recent discovery, Dr. Collins wrote, the body’s lymphatic system does indeed extend to the brain.


The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials.  Its primary function is to transport lymph, a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout the body.


Modern medicine knew of no lymphatic system in the brain—although some had suggested centuries ago that lymphatic vessels surrounded the brain, an idea largely dismissed as wrong.


How could have modern science missed the brain’s lymphatic system all these years?


The brain’s lymphatic vessels aren’t visible on standard MRI scans because they track right alongside much larger and more conspicuous blood vessels, Dr. Collins explained.


Partnering with pioneering researchers at the Kipnis Lab at the University of Virginia (UVA), NIH brain scientists used specialized brain dyes and “dimmed down” MRI scans to produce images clearly showing a network of previously-unknown lymphatic vessels in the brain.


Because the lymphatic system plays a vital role in immune response, the discovery could be important in understanding, treating, and preventing brain disorders involving immune-related inflammation.  Such disorders include multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


Previous unrelated research has indeed found significant anecdotal evidence suggesting a link between bacterial or viral infections and Alzheimer’s and other dementias.


Researchers at the NIH now plan to compare the function of the brain’s newly-discovered lymphatic system in people with or without MS.


Likewise, “neuroscientists all around the world can now begin to explore similar questions in the groups of patients they study,” according to Dr. Collins.