Photo: human neural progenitor cells under the microscope

Firing up your own stem cells

20 years ago our understanding of how the brain works changed completely. This revolutionised researchers’ hopes for treating MS.

Growing new brain cells

For decades people believed the brain was a fixed system that couldn’t regenerate or repair itself. But in 1998, a group of Swedish scientists showed that new nerve cells could form in the adult brain.

Further research found that these new nerves developed from a type of stem cell, called a neural stem cell.

In fact, these amazing stem cells can generate all the main cells of the nervous system: nerve cells, myelin making oligodendrocytes, and the other supporting cells in the brain.

A new opportunity to develop treatments for MS

Neural stem cells have opened up a whole new avenue of research into neurological conditions. For MS, the focus has been on how to encourage neural stem cells to develop into oligodendrocytes - the cells that can repair myelin.

Oligodendrocytes are made from oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs), which develop from neural stem cells.

Stem cell repair in MS

Researchers think that when nerve cells are damaged, they signal to the OPCs that they’re in trouble. OPCs then move to where the damage is and mature into oligodendrocytes, ready to replace the lost myelin.

In MS, and as we age, this repair process slows down. OPCs stop responding to the nerve’s call for help and myelin damage builds up.

Experts think this slowing down of the brain’s ability to repair myelin damage could be what leads to progressive MS.

> Watch researcher Omar de Faria Jr talk about his work to understand how cells communicate with each other in our Meet the Researchers series on YouTube

Age-related changes in MS

At the MS Society Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair, the team are looking at why OPCs stop responding to myelin damage over time - and finding out what can be done to kick-start these stem cells back into action.

Dr Björn Neumann is focusing on the effects of ageing on myelin repair. He’s looking at young and old rodents to see what changes in their stem cells make them stop responding, and whether drugs or lifestyle changes could help.

> Watch Björn talk about his research in our Meet the Researchers series on YouTube

This blog first appeared in Research Matters magazine. If you’d like to receive Research Matters by post, email supportercare@mssociety.org.uk to ask about subscription. You can also download the full issue for free.

Photo: Chandran Lab