Photo: URMC

Sometimes, there’s nothing more cathartic than taking out the garbage – even for your brain.

Neuroscientists at University of Rochester Medical Center have discovered a previously unrecognized system that drains waste from the brain. Dubbed the “glymphatic system” due to its similarities with the lymphatic system, but instead managed by brain cells known as glial cells, this new-found system brings hope for many brain conditions, including Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, stroke, and traumatic brain injuries, which are all attributed in some way to waste protein build up on the brain.

Here’s how it works – the highly organized system acts as a series of pipes, piggybacking off of the brain’s blood vessels to drain away waste products. Think of it as if the brain has two big garbage cans; the first one collecting waste through a gradual trickle, the second one under much more pressure, pushing large volumes daily to carry waste away more forcefully.

That’s a lot going on in our brains on a daily basis – so how were we unaware of all of this until now? According to scientists, the system only works when it’s intact and operating in a living brain, which had previously been extremely difficult. To study the living, whole brain, the team at U of R used a technology known as two-photon microscopy, which allows scientists to look at the flow of blood and other substances in the brain of living animals – in this case, mice.

This is not the first discovery to stem from this research at U of R.  Back in the spring, a similar study found that parts of the brain that were not cleaning properly could be to blame for ADHD.  This is all great news, though. Once a definitive  biological cause has been pinned down with certainty, then medicines can be created to treat the problem.

See? Your mom wasn’t kidding when she told you it’s important to clean!