Queen’s University Belfast scientists have discovered that specific cells from the immune system are key players in brain repair – a fundamental breakthrough that could revolutionise the treatment of debilitating neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS). The research study, led by Dr Yvonne Dombrowski and Dr Denise Fitzgerald at the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast, is being hailed as a landmark study in unravelling the mysteries of how the brain repairs damage. This is crucial in the fight against MS, which affects 2.3 million people world-wide and over 4,500 people in Northern Ireland.
MS is the most common neurological disease affecting young adults and is the result of damage to myelin, the protective sheath surrounding nerve fibres of the central nervous system – the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. In MS, the immune system wrongly attacks the myelin sheath covering nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord, which can lead to symptoms such as vision loss, pain, fatigue and paralysis.
Until now, medical treatment could limit relapses but could not reverse the damage already done by the condition. The exciting aspect of this new research is that the team have uncovered beneficial effects of immune cells in myelin repair that have potential to reverse myelin damage. The study was an international collaboration including experts in Cambridge, San Francisco, Edinburgh, Maynooth and Nice.
The research breakthrough, which has been published today in Nature Neuroscience, shows that a protein made by certain cells within the immune system triggers the brain’s stem cells to mature into oligodendrocytes that repair myelin.
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