Researchers Reveal Previously Unknown Tiny Channels Between Our Skull And Brain

Confocal microscopy of the skull of a living mouse shows newly discovered channels running from the bone marrow through the inner skull bone, to the outer membrane on the surface of the brain. SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

Neuroscientists have discovered that the type of white blood cell that serves as a first responder to tissue damage can travel directly from the bone marrow cavities inside our skulls to the outer layer of the membrane surrounding our brains using never before seen microscopic channels. It was previously believed that most of the immune cells tasked with brain maintenance were produced by reservoirs of spongy marrow inside our arm and leg bones, and that they could only be delivered to the meninges by circulating through the bloodstream.

"These findings suggest that immune cells may instead be taking a shortcut to rapidly arrive at areas of inflammation," said Francesca Bosetti, program director at the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which provided funding for the study, in a statement. "Inflammation plays a critical role in many brain disorders and it is possible that the newly described channels may be important in a number of conditions. The discovery of these channels opens up many new avenues of research."

In their revelatory paper, published in Nature Neuroscience, Dr Nahrendorf and his colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School document how the pathway was first revealed through a series of experiments with fluorescently tagged neutrophils in mice. After marking neutrophils made in the mice’s tibias and skull bones, the authors inflicted brain damage by inducing a stroke or creating brain inflammation. Subsequent advanced imaging scans showed that the neutrophils arriving on the scene were more likely to have come from the skull marrow than that of the tibia, and that the neutrophil supply within the skull bone was much more depleted than that of the tibia and other white blood cell sources.

Interestingly, the team then found that heart tissue injuries from induced heart attacks resulted in similar responses from skull and tibia neutrophils. Taken together, the evidence suggested that skull bone marrow reacts differently to signals from the injured brain than it does to distress from other parts of the body. Yet at this point, they still didn’t understand how the neutrophils got to the dura matter – the outermost layer of the meninges – so quickly.

Micro CT image of a mouse skull showing vascular channels (arrows) that carry neutrophils and other immune cells from the bone marrow to outer membrane of the brain. Gregory Wojtkiewicz/Massachusetts General Hospital
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