July 26 (UPI) -- By improving the function of brain vessels, researchers have found a way to control age-related memory loss and other neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzeheimer's disease, according to a study of mice.
Scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine dramatically enhanced aged mice's ability to learn and improved memories by improving the performance of lymphatic vessels. In the findings, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the researchers determined that the vessels connecting the brain and the immune system play a role in Alzheimer's disease and the decline in cognitive ability.
In 2015, neuroscientist Dr. Jonathan Kipnis and his team discovered that the brain is surrounded by lymphatic vessels. Although the discovery was named one of the year's biggest, Kipnis said the new findings are their most important.
"When you take naturally aging mice and you make them learn and remember better, that is really exciting," Kipnis, chairman of UVA's Department of Neuroscience and the director of its Center for Brain Immunology and Glia, said in a press release. "If we can make old mice learn better, that tells me there is something that can be done. I'm actually very optimistic that one day we could live to a very, very, very old age and not develop Alzheimer's."
In the neck of aged mice, the researchers inserted a compound to improve the flow of waste from the brain to the lymph nodes. By becoming larger and draining better, it had a direct effect on the mice's ability to learn and remember.
"Here is the first time that we can actually enhance cognitive ability in an old mouse by targeting this lymphatic vasculature around the brain," Kipnis said. "By itself, it's super, super exciting, but then we said, 'Wait a second, if that's the case, what's happening in Alzheimer's?'"
UVA researcher Dr. Sandro Da Mesquita said the pathology of human and mice brains with alzheimer's is strikingly similar, and that by impairing lymphatic function in the mice, they were able to make the model more similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans.
Kipnis signed a deal with biopharmaceutical company PureTech Health to explore the potential clinical applications of the research. One way is to combine vasculature repair with other approaches.
"It may be very difficult to reverse Alzheimer's, but maybe we would be able to maintain a very high functionality of this lymphatic vasculature to delay its onset to a very old age," Kipnis said. "I honestly believe, down the road, we can see real results."