Newfound skull tunnels may speed immune cells’ trek to brain injuries

These tiny shortcuts showed up in the bone of mice and humans

skull channels

HOLES IN HEAD  A mouse skull is full of microscopic channels (arrows) that connect the bone to the brain’s outer membrane, an imaging method called a micro CT scan shows. Similar channels were found in people’s skulls.

Gregory Wojtkiewicz/Center for Systems Biology/Mass. Gen. Hosp.

Skulls seem solid, but the thick bones are actually riddled with tiny tunnels.

Microscopic channels cut through the skull bones of people and mice, scientists found. In mice, inflammatory immune cells use these previously hidden channels to travel from the bone marrow of the skull to the brain, the team reports August 27 in Nature Neuroscience. It’s not yet known whether immune cells travel these paths through people’s skulls. If so, these tunnels represent a newfound way for immune cells to reach — and possibly inflame — the brain.

Along with other blood cells, immune cells are made in bones including those in the arm, leg, pelvis and skull. Researchers injected tracking dyes into bone marrow in the skull and other bones of mice, marking immune cells called neutrophils that originated in each locale. After a stroke, neutrophils flocked to the brain. Instead of coming equally from all sources of bone marrow, as some scientists had thought, most of these responding cells came from skull marrow, study coauthor Matthias Nahrendorf of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and colleagues found.

Curious about cells’ journeys from skull marrow to the brain, the researchers used powerful microscopes to look where skull meets brain. Tiny rivulets through the skull bone connected bone marrow inside the skull to the outer covering of the brain. In mice, neutrophils used these channels, which averaged about 22 micrometers across, as shortcuts to reach the brain.

Similar conduits exist in bits of skull removed during three people’s brain surgery. In humans, these channels through the inside of the skull were 77 micrometers across on average.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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