Multiple Sclerosis Discovery Could Fix the Brain
People with multiple sclerosis (MS) experience a loss of or damage to the protective covering (myelin) of the nerve fibers in their brain, which results in the debilitating symptoms associated with the disease. What if scientists could find a way to repair that damage and regenerate myelin?
What’s the latest in promising MS research?
A team of researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge have discovered that cells called macrophages can trigger the regeneration of myelin by releasing a substance known as activin-A. Macrophages are white blood cells that are perhaps best known as “garbage eaters” because they consume bacteria that invade the body.
However, macrophages also play a critical role in regulating the immune system and healing wounds. In 2010, David Mosser, professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland’s College of Chemical and Life Sciences, reported on the main duties of macrophages at the American Physiological Society conference.
At that time, he explained that macrophages could be instrumental in developing treatments for multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases. He noted that new research was focusing on macrophages and their ability to help regulate and prevent autoimmunity.
Now, researchers have learned how macrophages can regenerate myelin, a discovery that could help scientists develop new drugs that enhance and promote myelin regeneration in the brain and help patients regain bodily functions lost to the disease. For now, however, available therapies for MS work by reducing the amount of initial damage to myelin but cannot help with regeneration.
Among the estimated 400,000 individuals in the United States and 2.5 million around the world that have MS, symptoms can range from mild to severe and include numbness of the legs to impaired bowel function, loss of balance, slurred speech, vision problems (e.g., blindness, blurriness, double vision), fatigue, dizziness, gait problems, and paralysis. Thus far there is no cure, and treatment focuses on relieving symptoms.
Because of the latest findings, researchers are now planning to explore how activin-A works and whether they can boost its beneficial effects in the brain. According to Dr. Veronique Miron, of the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, their findings thus far “could help find new drug targets to enhance myelin regeneration and help to restore lost function in patients with multiple sclerosis.”
Other treatments for MS
Among the other treatments for MS are natural approaches, such as the ones reported in an April 2013 article in BMJ Open. The authors evaluate the effect of several combinations of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids as well as vitamins A and E.
Of the 41 patients who completed the study, the authors observed the most benefit (defined as a reduction in relapses) among individuals who took the fatty acids in a 1:1 ratio plus vitamin A and vitamin E as both alpha-tocopherol and gamma tocopherol. Benefits typically associated with these ingredients include anti-inflammatory properties for omega-3 and selected omega-6 fatty acids, immune system and vision enhancement with vitamin A, and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers for both forms of vitamin E.
A controversial natural treatment for MS is marijuana. Several studies have revealed some benefits for MS patients, including a slowing of progression of the disease (when using capsules containing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, an active component of marijuana) , reduced pain, and an improvement in range of motion (when smoking marijuana).
Dietary choices can also have an impact on MS symptoms. Researchers at Yale and Harvard, for example, found that mouse models of MS who were exposed to high levels of salt experienced nerve damage, which suggests salt may have a detrimental effect on the disease.
Other dietary suggestions include reducing intake of saturated fat, as some research indicates a low-fat diet can slow progression of the disease. Following a gluten-free diet also may have a positive impact on MS symptoms.
Multiple sclerosis continues to be a challenge for patients and for scientists who are searching for more effective treatments and ultimately a cure. The latest discovery is a significant step in learning how to regenerate the myelin that protects nerve fibers in the brain and thus help restore function in MS patients.
Swank R. Multiple sclerosis: twenty years on low fat diet. Archives of Neurology 1970; 23:460
Swank R. Multiple sclerosis: the lipid relationship. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1988; 48:1387
University of Edinburgh