This year’s Eric K. Fernström foundation Grand Nordic Prize goes to neurology researcher Maiken Nedergaard, at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Rochester.
Nedergaard has discovered and investigated how the brain gets rid of harmful products using its own purification system, the glymphatic system – knowledge that is significant in the context of neurodegenerative diseases, among other conditions. To quote the Jury: “for her revolutionary discovery of the brain’s own cleaning system, the glymphatic system. Her discovery and investigation of this system has increased our understanding of how the brain gets rid of harmful products during sleep, thereby protecting the brain from disease”.
The perivascular space
The blood vessels in the brain are surrounded by something called the perivascular space. It looks like a doughnut-shaped tunnel and is created by surrounding glial cells that form the outer wall. Maiken Nedergaard’s research showed that cerebrospinal fluid passed through this space, rinsing away the waste proteins no longer needed by the brain. She has also shown that, as we sleep, the space expands and more fluid flows through the tunnel and down towards the veins, finally reaching the neck where it joins the bloodstream.
“Just as the heart pumps blood around the body, it also pumps cerebrospinal fluid through the perivascular space, which is formed by the glial cells in the brain. The beauty of the glymphatic system is that it removes all harmful proteins and other waste, not only one kind”.
The discovery is important because a common characteristic of many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s, is the accumulation of harmful proteins in the brain. These diseases also have in common the early onset of sleep disorders in patients.
“We have seen that how our heart beats have a major effect on the glymphatic system. When we sleep, our heart rate slows down and the heart’s output increases, which means the system functions optimally. But as we age, our blood vessels become stiffer. Even though the heart manages to pump blood around the body, it is not sufficient to pump the fluid in the brain as well as before. The cleaning programme is then not as efficient”, observes Maiken Nedergaard in the press release.
Eric K. Fernström’s six local prizes and the Nordic prize will be awarded during the popular science event Research Day on 7 November in Lund.
About the Fernström Prizes
Every year, the Eric K. Fernström Foundation awards a Nordic Prize to a medical researcher from one of the Nordic countries, as well as local prizes to junior researchers at faculties of medicine in Sweden. The Nordic Prize has a value of one million Swedish crowns. Lund University’s Faculty of Medicine has collaborated with the foundation since 1978, when Honorary Doctor of Medicine Eric K Fernström started the Eric K. Fernström Foundation through a donation.
Photographer: Adam Fenster/University of Rochester