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Brain Health

Slow Brain Ageing By Looking After Your Glymphatic System

Posted on 18 July 2023

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The brain is a complex and vital organ that requires constant maintenance and clearance of metabolic wastes. Throughout the rest of the body, a network of vessels called the lymphatic system is responsible for draining excess fluids as well as transporting immune cells. However, the brain lacks a conventional lymphatic system, so how does it keep itself clean and healthy?

The answer may lie in a recently discovered system called the glymphatic system. This system is a space surrounding certain blood vessels that allows cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to enter and exit the brain. This allows both the delivery of nutrients to the brain cells and the removal of waste products such as amyloid-beta and tau proteins, which are associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Representational diagram showing the structure of the glymphatic system. Waste products from neurons enter the interstitial fluid (ISF) and can pass into the CSF in the space surrounding the blood vessels.
The glymphatic system: a new perspective on brain diseases

A recent article published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience highlights the importance of the glymphatic system for brain health and ageing. Here are the key points:

  • The glymphatic system may be involved in various neurological disorders and diseases, such as dementia, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and migraine. These have all been associated with impaired glymphatic function, inflammation and dysfunction of the cells known as astrocytes, which act as the ‘gatekeepers’ of the glymphatic system.
  • Understanding the glymphatic system may help us to better understand and treat neurological diseases. By enhancing the function of the glymphatic system, we may be able to accelerate the clearance of toxic waste from the brain, reduce inflammation and prevent damage.
  • The glymphatic system could be used to deliver drugs to the brain, bypassing the blood-brain barrier. This could make therapies both more effective and safer.

The health of the glymphatic system declines with age, but research suggests there are ways of enhancing it to accelerate waste clearance from the brain:

  • Getting more quality sleep: Glymphatic function has been shown to be greatly enhanced while you are asleep.
  • Sleeping on your side: Interestingly, researchers have found that in the brains of mice, the glymphatic system cleared amyloid beta most rapidly when they slept on their sides. When mice slept on their backs, the glymphatic system was less effective than when they slept on their sides, but more effective than when they slept on their bellies. This is probably related to heart and respiratory function and needs to be explored more in humans.
  • Doing more exercise: Exercise has been shown to enhance the function of the glymphatic system in mice, and may underlie some of the reported cognitive benefits of exercise in humans.
  • Drinking only a small amount of alcohol: Research in mice suggests that excessive alcohol consumption reduces glymphatic function. Chronic low doses of alcohol for one month also reduced glymphatic function, but single small doses may actually enhance glymphatic function slightly.

Ultimately, we need more studies in humans to explore the therapeutic potentials of the glymphatic system. The existence of the glymphatic system was only proven in 2012, and the best techniques for monitoring glymphatic function in living humans are still being figured out. We hope this fascinating discovery can open new avenues for exploring the mysteries of the brain and for slowing down brain ageing.

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    The glymphatic system: a new perspective on brain diseases

    Title image by vecstock, Freepik

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