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Photo by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash

Brain blood vessels are critical networks to maintain brain functions. They control the exchange of nutrients, gases, and wastes between neuronal cells and blood. Defects in these blood vessels result in life threatening diseases such as stroke and brain haemorrhages. However, how blood vessels absorbs nutrients for their own functions and how they supply the brain with essential nutrients is yet to be fully understood.

Led by Assistant Professor Long N. Nguyen from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine's Department of Biochemistry, a team of researchers have now discovered a protein named Mfsd7c which is not only essential for brain blood vessel development, but essential for brain growth.

The loss of Mfsd7c causes severely reduced blood vessel density and functions that results in hypoxia and neuronal cell death. In the study, it is also found that a deficiency of Mfsd7c causes microcephaly (small brain). Although detailed mechanisms by which Mfsd7c regulates these two seemingly related processes require further investigations, the study suggested that molecules transported to the brain by Mfsd7c are critical for the central nervous system (CNS).

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This image illustrates that deficiency of Mfsd7c causes severe defects in blood vessel development and microcephaly, a form of small brain. (Image credit: Long N. Nguyen)

The researchers noted that many protein transporters are expressed in brain blood vessels. However, what we know about the human brain is still limited. Nutrients that the brain needs during early development and in adulthood are yet to be fully uncovered. “Our study helped reveal that Mfsd7c is a critical gateway in blood vessels, likely by bringing in essential nutrients to the brain” said Dr Nguyen.

“This study opens up new avenues of research aimed at identifying essential nutrients transported via CNS blood vessels for brain growth and functions”. “We are actively pursuing these scientific questions with hope that our research outcomes can be utilised for treatment of neuronal diseases via manipulating essentially nutritional molecules required by the brain”. — Assistant Professor Long N. Nguyen

These findings were reported online in the prestigious Journal Clinical Investigation (JCI) on 5 May 2020 and may pave the way for better understanding of the essential nutrients required for blood vessel health and brain growth.

Read more in the press release here.