Our brain’s “garbage truck” may hold the key to treating Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders


Credit: ©James Steidl/Fotolia

In a perspective piece appearing…in the journal Science, researchers at University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) point to a newly discovered system by which the brain removes waste as a potentially powerful new tool to treat neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, scientists believe that some of these conditions may arise when the system is not doing its job properly.

“Essentially all neurodegenerative diseases are associated with the accumulation of cellular waste products,” said Maiken Nedergaard…author of the article. “Understanding and ultimately discovering how to modulate the brain’s system for removing toxic waste could point to new ways to treat these diseases.”

The body defends the brain like a fortress and rings it with a complex system of gateways that control which molecules can enter and exit. While this “blood-brain barrier” was first described in the late 1800s, scientists are only now just beginning to understand the dynamics of how these mechanisms function. In fact, the complex network of waste removal, which researchers have dubbed the glymphatic system, was only first disclosed by URMC scientists last August in the journal Science Translational Medicine…

One of the reasons why the glymphatic system had long eluded comprehension is that it cannot be detected in samples of brain tissue. The key to discovering and understanding the system was the advent of a new imaging technology called two-photon microscopy which enables scientists to peer deep within the living brain. Using this technology on mice, whose brains are remarkably similar to humans, Nedergaard and her colleagues were able to observe and document what amounts to an extensive, and heretofore unknown, plumbing system responsible for flushing waste from throughout the brain…

While the discovery of the glymphatic system solved a mystery that had long baffled the scientific community, understanding how the brain removes waste – both effectively and what happens when this system breaks down – has significant implications for the treatment of neurological disorders…

“The idea that ‘dirty brain’ diseases like Alzheimer may result from a slowing down of the glymphatic system as we age is a completely new way to think about neurological disorders,” said Nedergaard. “It also presents us with a new set of targets to potentially increase the efficiency of glymphatic clearance and, ultimately, change the course of these conditions.”

Not very often do I read a scientific article – and reflecting upon it – say to myself, “this is worthy of a Nobel Prize. This is one of those rare instances.

Discovery of the glymphatic system in the human brain opens up possibilities for detecting, repairing and preventing neurodegenerative diseases that plague a population that continues to expand our age range. Delightful work. Important, praiseworthy.

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