Research published in Acta Neuropathologica has identified a new focus in the ongoing search for multiple sclerosis (MS) treatments, thanks to a discovery of which brain cells are most affected by neurodegeneration.
The team at the MS Society Edinburgh Centre for MS Research believe their findings could lead to vital new treatments that help prevent disability in those with the condition.
The primarily MS Society funded study, which analysed post-mortem brain tissue samples from people who had been living with MS, found a dramatic reduction in the number of inhibitory brain cells (or neurons) compared to people without the condition.
Conversely the number of stimulating neurons remained the same – even in people who had MS for decades.
Professor Anna Williams, who led the study at the University of Edinburgh, explained:
“Our research has shown that a specific type of neuron, called an inhibitory interneuron, is damaged in people with MS.
“This is really important because, in the search for new treatments, it focuses our efforts on trying to stop the damage and death of these special cells.
“Our next step is to convert this knowledge into new treatments that protect nerves and prevent neurodegeneration – and ultimately disability – in people living with MS.”
In MS the protective coating around the nerves, which is called myelin, is attacked by the immune system, leading to damage of the brain and spinal cord.
This causes MS symptoms such as fatigue, pain, and vision and mobility problems, and can lead to progressive worsening of disability.
The available treatments for MS target rogue immune activity, and reduce the damage to myelin.
But to truly stop MS and stop disability progression, researchers need to find treatments that can replace lost myelin, and protect nerves from damage.
This project helps us more fully understand which nerves are damaged in MS and why – therefore also helping us understand how we might protect nerves from damage.
This is the first project to show the selective loss of specific nerve cells in people with MS, which is unexpected and will be of wide interest to the research community working hard to stop the condition.
Following their findings, the Edinburgh research team also generated a new mouse model of demyelination, which showed the same selective loss of inhibitory neurons seen in humans.
Dr Lida Zoupi, who worked on this study, said:
“In our mouse model, we show that demyelination directly leads to neurodegeneration, answering a long-standing debate between MS researchers in the process.
“By confirming this, we have a vital new insight into the mechanisms behind neurodegeneration, which could potentially be used as a model for the development of neuroprotective treatments.”
Morna Simpkins, MS Society Scotland director, said:
“In order to stop MS, we need to find ways to prevent immune attacks, repair myelin and protect nerves from damage.
“We’ve made huge progress in finding treatments that target the immune system, but many people living with MS still don’t have access to effective treatments.
“We believe this study represents a vital step in our mission to stop MS.
“Work like this, which is based at our Edinburgh Centre and used samples from the MS Society Tissue Bank, shows just how important charity funded research is to the overall research landscape, and we’re proud to have made it possible.”
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