91. Our beautiful minds

Posted on June 4, 2015

Scientists at the University of Virginia have found a previously unsuspected network of lymphatic vessels connecting the brain directly to the immune system (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature14432.html).

Why is this so important? For a start, because, as Jonathon Knipsis, Director of the Center where the discovery was made, said “We always perceived it [the effect of the mind/brain on the body] as something esoteric that can’t be studied” ((http://www.news.virginia.edu/content/researchers-find-textbook-altering-link-between-brain-immune-system).

Esoteric it has certainly been. Part of it still remains so, because this discovery does not by any means resolve the classical mind/body problems that continue to plague philosophers. It does help to explain, though, how the functioning of the brain may influence the functioning of the body. It was only recently, for example, that doctors accepted mental stress as being causally linked to some illnesses. This discovery provides a pathway.

It also provides a pathway in the reverse direction. Again to quote Knipsis “We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role.”

How have these vessels remained hidden for all these years? Perhaps they haven’t – according to Professor Alice Roberts,  the nineteenth-century anatomist Jean Cruveilhier says that the eighteenth-century Frederik Ruysch “first … noticed lymphatics in the brain”

But the authors themselves (and also the referees and editors of Nature) believe and claim that their discovery is new.

If it is, why wasn’t it made ages ago, in the nineteenth century heyday of comparative anatomy? The answer partly it comes down to belief – a belief that human anatomy was all worked out by the mid-nineteenth century, so that there was nothing new to look for. Also, the newly-discovered lymphatic vessels follow a major blood vessel that conceals their presence. It was only discovered because of the extraordinary dissecting skills of Igor Smirnov, a research associate in the lab, and the technique for laying out mouse meninges (the membranes covering the brain) on a single slide, developed by postdoctoral fellow Antoine Louveau, who was also the first to spot the new vessels.

What’s the bet that this will lead to a Nobel Prize? If the newness of the discovery is verified, and with the prizes only allowed to be shared between three people at most, I wonder who among the twelve authors will get it?

Science has always been a team effort – a fact that the Nobels fail to acknowledge. With increasing teamwork and collaboration, especially in biomedical science and high energy physics, isn’t it about time for these prizes to be scrapped, and replaced by something that recognizes how science really works?


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