Professor Maiken Nedergaard from the University of Copenhagen is this year’s recipient of the prestigious prize Stora Nordiska Pris awarded by the Eric K. Fernström Foundation. She receives the prize for her discovery of and research into the brain’s cleaning system, the glymphatic system.
This year’s Stora Nordiska Pris, one of the largest medical awards in Scandinavia, goes to Professor Maiken Nedergaard from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Rochester. The prize is awarded by the Eric K. Fernström Foundation and comes with one million Swedish kroner.
Maiken Nedergaard has been chosen as this year’s prize winner for her “revolutionary discovery of the brain’s own cleaning system, the glymphatic system. Her discovery and study hereof has increased our understanding of how the brain during sleep gets rid of harmful substances and thus protects itself from disease,” the foundation argues. Maiken Nedergaard, who is co-director of Center for Translational Neuromedicine (UCPH), is grateful for the prize and the recognition of her work.
‘There is no doubt that research is incredibly important for our future. I am very happy that private individuals and organizations invest in research and wish to honor nerds like me stuck in long-term projects that we often cannot see the end of. We really appreciate it,’ says Maiken Nedergaard.
According to Maiken Nedergaard, who is president of the Danish Society for Neuroscience, research prizes are important because they bring focus on research.
‘The society is striving to attract the greatest talents to neuroscience. Neuroscience has never been more relevant than it is today. Now that we have become better at treating heart diseases and several types of cancer, dementia is the disease reducing the quality of life of our senior citizens’, she explains.
Interest in Glial Cells Led to Discovery
In 2012 Maiken Nedergaard and her research group were the first to discover and describe the brain’s cleaning system, and they named it the glymphatic system. The system is partly similar to the lymphatic system in the rest of the body, hence the ‘lymphatic’, while the ‘g’ is for glial cells, which are responsible for the transportation of fluids. Among other things, the system plays a main role in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. It was Maiken Nedergaard’s interest in glial cells, the brain’s support cells, that led her to discover the glymphatic system, as she and her research group set out to understand glial cells’ role at organ level.
‘We simply began studying how the brain got rid of waste matter. It was a brand new, unknown system for transportation of water in the brain. Some aspects of the system had already been described, but no one had described the fact that fluids in the brain remove waste matter – mainly when we are asleep. We began by examining the cleaning system in animals subjected to anesthesia. And we were surprised to learn that the transportation of fluids had more or less stopped when we began studying animals who were awake. There is probably a good reason why we do not clean the brain while awake – how could the nerve cells work in a dishwasher?’, Maiken Nedergaard explains.
The research of Maiken Nedergaard and her research group has paved the way for further work on the system by other researchers around the world, including two Scandinavian researchers, Per Eide from the University of Oslo and Vesa Kiviniemi from Oulo University. Their groups have done further research into the system and established the existence of the glymphatic system in humans. Per Eide has specifically studied the glymphatic system in a dementia disease called ‘normal pressure hydrocephalus’, while Vesa Kiviniemi has invented a new method for examining the system non-invasively using MRI. The researchers hope that Vesa Kiviniemi’s MRI method can be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s before the patient experiences dementia and there is still a chance of treating the disease.
The Glymphatic System’s Role in Cognition
Glial cells still interest Maiken Nedergaard. These days she is researching, among other things, how the glymphatic system may be able to drive fluid congestion in the brain following traumatic brain injury or cardiac arrest. Another topic addressed by the group is the importance of the system to the brain and our cognitive abilities.
‘Glial cells in the human brain help make the brain capable of so much more than apes even – which I find incredibly interesting. How does something that is just a cleaning process also affect our human abilities? In the future we need to learn not just how the glymphatic system is turned on during sleep, but also how the system affects the way the brain works, our cognition and whether disruption of the glymphatic system contributes to mental health disorders like depression’, Maiken Nedergaard says.
Stora Nordiska Pris is awarded on 7 November during a ceremony held in connection with Research Day in Lund in Sweden. Here Maiken Nedergaard will give a lecture on her research.
Research Day is organized by the Faculty of Medicine at Lund University, Region Skåne and the Eric K. Fernström Foundation. The annual Stora Nordiska Pris has been awarded to Nordic researchers since 1979.
Researchers who have previously received the prize include Professor Jiri Lukas and Professor Jens Juul Holst from the University of Copenhagen.