If we can find treatments that can protect nerves from damage then we have the potential to stop MS getting worse. Excitingly, therapies designed to protect nerves could be effective for everyone with MS, including people with progressive MS.
To stop MS, we need to protect our nerves from permanent damage.
How are nerves damaged in MS?
In MS, nerve cells can be damaged when their protective myelin covering is attacked. The loss of myelin leaves the nerve fibre underneath vulnerable. So it can be damaged by things like myelin debris left behind after the attack, or by other toxic substances.
We think nerve damage can happen early on in the condition, even where there is still some intact myelin.
Why is protecting nerves important in MS?
Once a nerve dies, it cannot be replaced. With the nerve fibres lost, the messages can no longer get through. This can lead to disability becoming permanent.
Nerve cell death is a natural part of ageing for everyone. But for people with MS, this happens at a faster rate, because more cells are being lost. You can see this on MRI scans, with our brains shrinking over time.
To stop MS, it's vital we find treatments that can protect nerves from damage.
How can we protect nerves in MS?
The aim of neuroprotection is simple – to keep nerve cells happy, healthy and alive.
Researchers have identified a number of different ways to help us protect nerves:
Keeping the power on
Nerve cells use a lot of energy. This is generated by tiny powerhouses spread throughout the cell called mitochondria. Scientists have found that mitochondria are damaged in MS, meaning nerves don’t get the energy they need, stop working properly and eventually die.
This year research part funded by us found that a diabetes drug could give nerves in mice an energy boost and help protect them from damage.
Our researchers are working hard to unravel more of the mysteries of mitochondria. Understanding what goes wrong with mitochondria in progressive MS, will help us start developing therapies to fix it.
Creating a healthy environment
Healthy cells require healthy surroundings. We know that when myelin is damaged, debris and toxins build up around the nerves, causing inflammation.
Researchers are looking at ways to encourage the brain to clear this debris, creating a healthy environment for nerves.
Nerve cell transport
Inside every nerve there's a network of super highways that allow important molecules to go where they're needed.
Research suggests that in MS this transport system goes wrong, with traffic jams stopping the nerve working properly.
Our research into protecting nerves
We’re investing in some exciting research to help protect nerves in MS.
MS Society Tissue Bank
Our tissue bank supports scientists around the world who are working to understand nerve damage in MS. It enables researchers to investigate what actually happens in the human brain and spinal cord in MS, and to identify new treatment targets.
In 2017 we announced we’re co-funding a phase 3 trial to test if simvastatin can slow progression in secondary progressive MS. Simvastatin is commonly used to treat high cholesterol, but research suggests that it reduce inflammation and could protect nerves from damage.