Treatments could be developed that would repair damage to the brain in multiple sclerosis patients, according to new research.
Cells can regenerate the protective layer around nerve fibres in the brain that is stripped away in people with the condition, a study shows.
The coating, called myelin, helps messages travel quickly and smoothly between the brain and the rest of the body.
Scientists at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge looked at the regeneration of myelin in samples of human tissue and in mice.
They found that immune cells - known as macrophages - help trigger the regeneration of myelin.
When the protective coating is lost or damaged, macrophages can release a compound called activin-A which activates the production of more myelin, researchers discovered.
Dr Veronique Miron, from the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said: “In multiple sclerosis patients, the protective layer surrounding nerve fibres is stripped away and the nerves are exposed and damaged.
“Approved therapies for multiple sclerosis work by reducing the initial myelin injury - they do not promote myelin regeneration.
“This study could help find new drug targets to enhance myelin regeneration and help to restore lost function in patients with multiple sclerosis.”
Further research is now planned to look at how activin-A works and whether its effects can be enhanced.
Dr Susan Kohlhaas, head of biomedical research at the MS Society, said the charity was looking forward to seeing the research progress.
“We urgently need therapies that can help slow the progression of MS and so we’re delighted researchers have identified a new, potential way to repair damage to myelin,” she said.
The study is published in Nature Neuroscience and was funded by the MS Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.
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