Scientists discover a new way to battle multiple sclerosis

May 8, 2018 by Kelly Johnston, University of Calgary
The Dr. Peter Stys lab within the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine is equipped with highly specialized microscopes used for researching multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative disease. In this customized lab, the researchers can't wear white lab coats, they have to wear dark clothing. Photons could reflect off light clothing and interfere with the experiments. From left: Megan Morgan, research assistant, and Craig Brideau, engineering scientist. Credit: Pauline Zulueta, Cumming School of Medicine

Ridiculous. That's how Andrew Caprariello says his colleagues described his theory about multiple sclerosis (MS) back when he was doing his PhD in Ohio.

Caprariello's passion to explore controversial new theories about MS propelled him to seek out a postdoctoral fellowship with a like-minded thinker, whom he found in University of Calgary's Dr. Peter Stys, a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

The collaboration paid off. Caprariello, Stys and their colleagues have scientific proof published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that their somewhat radical theory has merit. "I've always wondered 'what if' MS starts in the and the immune attacks are a consequence of the brain damage," says Caprariello, PhD, and lead author on the study.

Currently, MS is considered to be a progressive autoimmune disease. Brain inflammation happens when the body's immune system attacks a protective material around nerve fibers in the brain called . Conventional thinking is that rogue immune cells initially enter the brain and cause myelin damage that starts MS.

"In the field, the controversy about what starts MS has been brewing for more than a decade. In medical school, I was taught years ago that the immune attack initiates the disease. End of story," says Stys, a neurologist and professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the CSM. "However, our findings show there may be something happening deeper and earlier that damages the myelin and then later triggers the immune attacks."

To test the theory, the research team designed a mouse model of MS that begins with a mild myelin injury. In this way, researchers could mirror what they believe to be the earliest stages of the disease.

"Our experiments show, at least in this animal model, that a subtle early biochemical injury to myelin secondarily triggers an immune response that leads to additional damage due to inflammation. It looks very much like an MS plaque on MRI and tissue examination," says Stys. "This does not prove that human MS advances in the same way, but provides compelling evidence that MS could also begin this way."

With that result, the researchers started to investigate treatments to stop the degeneration of the myelin to see if that could reduce, or stop, the secondary autoimmune response.

"We collaborated with researchers at the University of Toronto and found that by targeting a treatment that would protect the myelin to stop the deterioration, the stopped and the inflammation in the brain never occurred," says Stys. "This research opens a whole new line of thinking about this disease. Most of the science and treatment for MS has been targeted at the immune system, and while anti-inflammatory medications can be very effective, they have very limited benefit in the later progressive stages of the disease when most disability happens."

University of Calgary scientists Andrew Caprariello, Ph.D., left, and Dr. Peter Stys, professor at the Cumming School of Medicine, are challenging conventional thinking about the root cause of multiple sclerosis. Credit: Cumming School of Medicine

It can be very hard to find funding to investigate an unconventional theory. The research team was funded by the Brain and Mental Health Strategic Research Fund, established by the Office of the Vice-President (Research) at UCalgary to support innovative, interdisciplinary studies within the Brain and Mental Health research strategy.

"We chose high-risk, novel projects for these funds to support discoveries by teams who did not have the chance to work together through conventional funding sources," said Ed McCauley, PhD, vice-president (research). "The MS study shows the potential of brain and mental health scholars to expand capacity by tapping into new approaches for conducting research. Their work also exemplifies the type of interdisciplinary research that is propelling the University of Calgary as an international leader in brain and mental health research."

Explore further: Scientists discover roadblocks that stop brain white matter healing

More information: Andrew V. Caprariello et al, Biochemically altered myelin triggers autoimmune demyelination, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1721115115

Related Stories

Scientists discover roadblocks that stop brain white matter healing

May 7, 2018
A new study identifies a molecule that may be critical to the repair of white matter, the fatty tissue wrapped around parts of brain cells that helps speed up communication. Damage to white matter is associated with several ...

Brain's 'insulation' continues to form throughout life

March 20, 2018
Myelin acts as insulation for millions of brain cells, allowing for swift and efficient transmission of signals across brain regions. Despite its crucial role, little is known about how stable this structure is in the adult ...

Potential new approach to the treatment of multiple sclerosis

March 5, 2018
A prospective new method of treating patients with multiple sclerosis has been proposed by researchers of the Mainz University Medical Center working in cooperation with researchers of the University of Montreal. In model ...

New disease model to facilitate development of ALS and MS therapies

April 17, 2018
Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have developed a new disease model for neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS and MS that can be used to develop new immunotherapies. The model is described in a publication ...

The key to treating multiple sclerosis could be inside sufferers' own bodies

February 28, 2018
Fat often gets a bad press, but if it didn't coat the cables that connect our neurons, we'd be in a lot of trouble. Sufferers of multiple sclerosis and a host of other nervous system diseases have first-hand experience of ...

Cellular self-digestion process triggers autoimmune disease

December 13, 2017
Autophagy refers to a fundamental recycling process of cells that occurs in yeast, fungi, plants, as well as animals and humans. This process allows cells to degrade their own components and thus activate energy resources ...

Recommended for you

Mechanisms of harmful overhydration and brain swelling

May 22, 2018
We are all familiar with the drawbacks of dehydration, but we rarely hear about the harmful effects of overhydration. For one, excess fluid accumulation can lead to dangerously low sodium levels in the blood or hyponatremia—a ...

Mice brain structure linked with sex-based differences in anxiety behavior

May 22, 2018
Using male individuals has long been a tradition in scientific mice studies. But new research enforces the importance of using a balanced population of male and female mice.

Cell types underlying schizophrenia identified

May 22, 2018
Scientists at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and University of North Carolina have identified the cell types underlying schizophrenia in a new study published in Nature Genetics. The findings offer a roadmap for the development ...

In brain stimulation therapy less might be more

May 22, 2018
One of the promising non-invasive brain therapeutic methods is the repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). During such a procedure, a magnetic coil is placed near the head of the patient and a magnetic pulse ...

Subtle hearing loss while young changes brain function, study finds

May 22, 2018
Cranking up your headphones or scrambling for a front-row spot at rock shows could be damaging more than your hearing.

What helps form long-term memory also drives the development of neurodegenerative disease

May 22, 2018
Scientists have just discovered that a small region of a cellular protein that helps long-term memories form also drives the neurodegeneration seen in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). This small part of the Ataxin-2 protein ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.