Cleaning up: scavenger brain cells


Discovery of a cell protecting zebrafish brains from bloodstream waste could help treat human maladies such as stroke and dementia, writes Tim Wallace.


Surface of an adult zebrafish brain showing scavenger cells in red adjacent to blood vessels in green and nuclei in blue.
Bower et al., Nature Neuroscience

In the brain of a zebrafish, lymphatic “scavenger” cells (shown in red) wrap around blood vessels (shown in green). The scavenger cells, or mural lymphatic endothelial cells, discovered by scientists at the University of Queensland, are believed to protect the brain from cellular waste, such as excess fats, leaking from the bloodstream.

A full cross section of a zebrafish brain showing blood vessels in green, scavenger cells in red, and nuclei in blue.
Bower et al., Nature Neuroscience

“It is rare to discover a cell type in the brain that we didn’t know about previously, and particularly a cell type that we didn’t expect to be there,” says lead researcher Ben Hogan, of UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

He and his colleagues hope the discovery will improve understanding of how the human brain functions, since zebrafish share many of the same cell types and organs as humans. The tropical freshwater fish make ideal subjects for such exploration, because the brains of the naturally transparent creatures can be observed directly using advanced light microscopes.

Hogan says there is reason to be confident that equivalent scavenger cells surround and protect the human brain. Learning how to control them, such as through pharmaceuticals, could lead to breakthroughs in preventing or treating neurological diseases such as stroke and dementia.

  1. https://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.4558.html
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