Literature Review

MRI Reveals Lymphatic Vessels in Dura

Imaging meningeal lymphatics may allow researchers to study potential abnormalities in neurologic disorders.


Researchers have visualized lymphatic vessels in the dura mater of humans on MRI, according to a short report published October 3, 2017, in eLife. They also have identified lymphatic vessels in brain tissue samples using immunostaining. The results suggest that the vessels could act as a pipeline between the brain and the immune system.

“Overall, our data clearly and consistently demonstrate the existence of lymphatic vessels within the dura mater of human and nonhuman primates,” said Daniel S. Reich, MD, PhD, Senior Investigator at the NINDS, and colleagues. “The ability to image the meningeal lymphatics noninvasively immediately suggests the possibility of studying potential abnormalities” in neurologic disorders, they said.

Daniel S. Reich, MD, PhD

A Fundamental Shift

In most of the body, lymphatic vessels transport immune cells and waste products from organs to the bloodstream, but the brain was thought not to have lymphatic vessels. In 2015, however, researchers found evidence of the brain’s lymphatic system in the dura of mice. Dr. Reich saw a presentation by an author of one the mouse studies, Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, Chair of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and “was completely surprised.”

“In medical school, we were taught that the brain has no lymphatic system,” Dr. Reich said. “After Dr. Kipnis’s talk, I thought maybe we could find it in human brains.”

Dr. Reich and colleagues scanned the brains of five healthy volunteers who had been injected with gadobutrol, a dye used during MRI scans to visualize brain blood vessels. Gadobutrol that had leaked out of blood vessels in the dura as part of a normal process collected inside lymphatic vessels in the dura and showed up as bright white lines on MRI. “We watched people’s brains drain fluid into these vessels,” said Dr. Reich. When they repeated the experiment using a different dye that leaks much less out of blood vessels (ie, gadofosveset), the lymphatic vessels did not appear on imaging.

Similar findings were observed in monkeys.

The lymphatic vessels had been difficult to identify because they resemble blood vessels, which are far more numerous, the researchers said.

“These results could fundamentally change the way we think about how the brain and immune system interrelate,” said Walter J. Koroshetz, MD, NINDS director.

Meningeal Lymphatic Network

MRI showed collection of interstitial gadolinium within dural lymphatic vessels in all five of the healthy volunteers (ages 28 to 53, three women) and all three of the common marmoset monkeys studied. The vessels had a maximum apparent diameter of approximately 1 mm. “Our results suggest that in the dura, similar to many other organs throughout the body, small intravascular molecules extravasate into the interstitium and then, under a hydrostatic pressure gradient, collect into lymphatic capillaries through a loose lymphatic endothelium,” the researchers said. “On 3D rendering of subtraction MRI images, dural lymphatics are seen running parallel to the dural venous sinuses, especially the superior sagittal and straight sinuses, and alongside branches of the middle meningeal artery. The topography of the meningeal lymphatics fits with the previously described network in rodents.”

Courtesy of the Reich Lab, NIH/NINDS

A 3D rendering of the topography of the dural lymphatic vasculature, as seen on a 3-T gadolinium-enhanced MRI scan. The image shows lymphatic vessels running primarily along the major dural venous sinuses. The choroid plexus also is visible.

Although MRI shows large, slow-flow lymphatic ducts, “blind-ending and small lymphatic capillaries, clearly seen by histopathology, are unlikely to be revealed by MRI,” the researchers noted. In addition, they “could not prove whether dural lymphatic vessels drain immune cells, CSF, or other substances from the brain to deep cervical lymph nodes” or assess any link with the glymphatic system. “A comprehensive map of the meningeal lymphatic network would have implications for unraveling the ways in which the meningeal lymphatics participate in waste clearance and in immune cell trafficking within the CNS,” the researchers said.

Neuropathologic evaluation focused on dura samples from two formalin-fixed brains (from patients ages 60 and 77 with longstanding progressive multiple sclerosis) and from a 33-year-old patient with refractory epilepsy undergoing anterior temporal lobectomy.

Future studies may examine the role that dural lymphatics play in inflammatory pathologic conditions. The researchers have observed “clusters of extravascular CD3+ lymphocytes and CD68+ phagocytic meningeal macrophages … in the dura of several multiple sclerosis autopsies, confirming intense immune cell trafficking and communication.” Furthermore, “lymphatic dysfunction might impair waste clearance in neurodegenerative diseases and aging, in line with the recently captured deposition of β-amyloid in human dura in elderly people,” the researchers said.

—Jake Remaly

Suggested Reading

Absinta M, Ha SK, Nair G, et al. Human and nonhuman primate meninges harbor lymphatic vessels that can be visualized noninvasively by MRI. Elife. 2017 Oct 3;6:e29738.

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