Scientists have discovered that a specific brain cell known as a 'projection neuron' has a central role to play in the brain changes seen in Multiple Sclerosis (MS). The research, published today in Nature, shows that projection neurons are damaged by the body's own immune cells, and that this damage could underpin the brain shrinkage and cognitive changes associated with MS. These new findings provide a platform for specific new MS therapies that target damaged brain cells to be developed.
Multiple Sclerosis is a disease of the brain and the spinal cord that affects over two million people worldwide. The potential symptoms of MS are wide ranging and can include problems with vision, movement and cognitive abilities. Previous research has shown that a brain region called the cortex shrinks over time in MS patients, known as cortical atrophy. The processes driving this cortical shrinkage have, until now, been unclear.
In a new international study from the University of Cambridge, University of Heidelberg and University of California, San Francisco, researchers used post-mortem human brain samples from MS patients to study a wide range of cell types implicated in the disease, and compared their findings to brain samples donated from people that did not have MS.
"Using a new technique called single nuclei RNA sequencing, we were able to study the genetic make-up of individual brain cells to understand why some cells might be more susceptible to damage in MS than others," said Dr Lucas Schirmer, lead scientist on the project from the University of Heidelberg.
"Our results showed that a particular type of nerve cell called "projection neurons" were particularly vulnerable to damage in the brains of MS patients."