American, Canadian, and Japanese researchers have made a very important discovery recently that could lead to a new way to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) effectively.
The joint effort pinpointed an important aspect of myelin formation, which could have major benefits for people suffering from MS or other nervous system conditions (e.g. peripheral neuropathy, spinal cord damage, etc.). The findings are fairly complex, so first let’s take a look at MS, its causes, and myelin to make this easier to understand.
First off, MS is a neurological disease — i.e. one that affects the body’s nervous system. Basically, the communication system between the brain and the rest of the body breaks down, causing vision problems, muscle weakness or tremors, walking/coordination/balance difficulties, paralysis, numbness, pain, difficulty speaking, and/or memory and other mild cognitive impairments.
These symptoms usually come on between the ages of 20 and 40, and often get progressively worse. However, no two MS sufferers are the same: some only experience mild symptoms while others find the disease severely disabling. There are treatments that can help, but there is no cure at the moment.
What’s behind this debilitating disease? Well, the exact cause is unknown as of yet. Many scientists hold that MS is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system goes haywire and attacks parts of the body rather than the usual intruders such as viruses and bacteria. The reason for this self-destructive behavior has yet to be discovered (could it be a virus or a genetic defect?).
In MS, the immune system attack damages myelin, the white coating around all nerves. This coating is more than just a protective sheath — it actually helps transmit signals to and from the brain. It’s through the nervous system that the brain functions properly, forming thoughts and feelings, and telling each portion of the body what to do. So you can see how damage to myelin, and thus to the nervous system, can wreak serious havoc in the body.
Researchers wanted to see if there was a way to fix the myelin problem in people suffering from MS and other nervous system conditions caused by damage to the nerve coating. So, what better way to do that than to go to the source — how does myelin form in the first place?
In this recent study, the research team looked at the development of nerves in the body, focusing on the formation of the myelin sheath. They discovered that “Par- 3,” a protein, was crucial to myelin creation. The cells responsible for forming the nerve coating are called “Schwann cells.”
During the formation process, Par-3 moves to one side of the Schwann cells, basically directing the process toward the specific nerve fiber that is to be coated. The protein also acts as a kind of central command, organizing all the other elements (e.g. proteins) that are needed to create myelin. The researchers found that when Par-3 was disrupted, the whole process of myelin formation was thrown off.
This knowledge of how myelin forms and the key players in the process is invaluable. Now that scientists understand the mechanism behind the creation of the nerve coating they can figure out ways to manipulate it. This means that there is potential for new treatments that could help myelin bounce back from the damage inflicted on it and, in effect, regenerate.
Once the myelin coating on the nerves has been restored, an MS patient could experience freedom from some or all of the crippling symptoms. Moreover, this new finding could even lead to an eventual cure. Stay tuned; this is new research, so you won’t be seeing follow-up studies or resulting treatments for some time.