Thursday, 23 February 2012

MS research roundup February 2012

With apologies for the long gap since the last one - here, finally, is my latest research roundup. And there's some real goodies this time!

MS is conventionally seen as an auto-immune condition. For some reason, not yet fully understood, the body's immune system begins to attack the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves. This has recently been challenged by the CCSVI theory, which states that MS is caused by blockages in the veins of the neck leading to back-up of blood and consequent deposition of iron in the brain.

Now an American researcher has developed a new theory. She believes that MS is a metabolic disease, caused by the body having problems dealing with fats in the diet. The rise in the number of cases over the last few decades is due to us, as a population, moving to a diet high in carbohydrates and saturated fats. Oxidised LDL cholesterol accumulates on nerve cells and triggers an immune response, leading to scarring of the cells. Men and women metabolise fats differently, which could account for the higher prevalence of MS in women.

It's an interesting theory, but obviously needs much research done to see if it holds water. Watch this space..

I've talked about vitamin D several times before: there's a lot of research going on in the field, and there seem to be many links between vitamin D and MS. Vitamin D is created in the body following exposure to sunlight, so people tend to be more at risk of deficiencies the further they are from the equator.

An international group of researchers are now suggesting that vitamin D should be added to foods like milk and fruit juice in Scotland, which has some of the highest levels of MS in the world. The Scottish Parliament is unconvinced. Food supplementation already exists: iodine is added to table salt to protect against goitre. Should vitamin D be added to the list?

As many of us know all too well, MS can be difficult and time-consuming to diagnose. This can cause distressing uncertainty, as well as delays in commencing treatments. Israeli researchers have developed an electronic "nose" which can diagnose MS, as well as some cancers, from a person's breath. They identified organic compounds in the breath that are a sign of MS, then produced sensors to detect them. They hope that their device will allow MS to be diagnosed at an early stage and without using invasive techniques like lumbar punctures. Still early stages for this research, but a very exciting development!

On to treatments. At least 80% of people using interferon-b eventually develop antibodies to it, meaning treatment has to be stopped. Instead, German researchers tried injecting mice with an MS-like disease with a type of RNA which stimulates the body to produce its own interferon-b. The results were excellent. This could prove to be an excellent way round the antibody problem.

As people with MS age, the rate of remyelination of nerve fibres slows, resulting in the loss of more nerves. A research group in the UK have managed to reverse this decline in mice by exposing them to stem cells from young mice. Stem cells show great promise in remyelination, and this is a great discovery.

Finally, research on treatments for MS symptoms.

The MS International Federation have released the results of a survey on fatigue. 86% of those who responded said that fatigue was one of their main symptoms, and 46% that fatigue has a high impact on their lives. For those of us with MS fatigue, this will come as little surprise. Interesting data, showing how important it is for healthcare providers to recognise the problem of fatigue. Important to remember, though, that those who responded had chosen to participate in a survey on fatigue, and might therefore be those for whom it's an important consideration. People unaffected by fatigue might not have been interested in participating.

An Israeli research group did a trial involving three groups of patients. One group received electrical stimulation of the left prefrontal cortex, one of the motor cortex, and the final, control, group received a sham stimulation. After 18 treatments, the group receiving stimulation in the motor cortex had less fatigue and less depression. There was a tendency towards less fatigue in the prefrontal cortex group. The control group had no signnificant improvement. Further research is planned to investigate the effect of the stimulation on metabolic and neural activity.

Many of us with MS also experience cognitive problems - short term memory loss, lack of concentration, and so on. Italian researchers used computer-based rehabilitation programmes to help with attention and information processing. One programme, for instance, is a train driving simulation: you have to observe the control panel of the train and the surrounding countryside while encountering increasingly difficult distractions. After a 12-week programme of treatment, patients had improved attention and information processing skills, although no changes were seen on MRI. It seems training can help, but it's no cure.

I hope you agree that there were some really promising bits of research this time. Let's see what happens next!


  1. Any improvement in cognitive function will be welcome. Train driving will be a fun bonus. Plus anything that makes diagnosis easier is a good thing. I only needed an MRI, no lumbar puncture, but if it helps other people to avoid that delight then that can only be a good thing too.

  2. Great post! Thanks for the links! Any news is important to me and I think probably is to you also. I'm forunate enough to be a patient of a scientist who is constantly researching and discovering treatments for those of us that are diagnosed with M.S.! Here's a link that may be usefull to you.