Zebrafish discovery could help future MS patients

Zebrafish at Edinburgh University were used as part of the world-leading research. Picture: Neil Hanna
Zebrafish at Edinburgh University were used as part of the world-leading research. Picture: Neil Hanna
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SCOTTISH scientists studying zebrafish say they have made a breakthrough that may mean multiple sclerosis patients could one day benefit from treatments that boost their brain function.

Multiple sclerosis affects the brain and spinal cord and can cause problems with balance, movement and vision.

This study is part of the world-leading research taking place in Scotland

Dr Emma Gray

Scotland leads the global rankings for MS rates with about 10,000 sufferers. A combination of factors such as lack of sunshine and genetics have been cited as contributory causes of the disease.

Information in the brain is transmitted along nerve fibres known as axons. A material –called myelin – forms a layer around the axons, which keeps them healthy and helps speed up the transfer of information.

Damage to myelin contributes to diseases of the brain such as multiple sclerosis.

Until now, it was not known how brain activity controls production of myelin by specialist cells, researchers say.

Now scientists at the University of Edinburgh have examined how changes in the activity of neurons affects how much myelin is produced in the brains of zebrafish, members of the minnow family.

The study included adding toxins to the fishes’ tank, which was then absorbed by the fishes’ nervous system.

They discovered that decreased brain function reduced the amount of myelin made, while production was increased by around 40 per cent when the neuronal activity of fish was increased.

Before they can develop new therapies, the team says it needs to learn more about how brain function controls the complex processes by which axons are coated with myelin.

Dr David Lyons, of the university’s centre for neuro-regeneration, who led the study, said: “We have a long way to go before we fully understand how our brain activity regulates myelin production, but the fact that this is even something that the brain can do is a good news story.

“We are hopeful that one day in the future we may be able to translate this type of discovery to help treat disease and to maintain a healthy nervous system through life.”

Dr Emma Gray, head of biomedical research at the MS Society welcomed the “world leading” research being conducted in Scotland.

“The idea that brain activity could stimulate myelin production is a fascinating one. This study has taken the first crucial steps to explore the biological mechanisms of how this happens and we very much look forward to seeing how this area of research develops.

“This study is part of the world-leading research taking place in Scotland, which has one of the highest prevalence of MS globally.

“There is a huge unmet need for new therapies that can stimulate myelin repair in MS, which affects over 11,000 people in the Scotland.

“The more we learn about how myelin production happens in the brain, the more chance we have of developing effective and targeted therapies to repair myelin in people with MS.”

The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, was funded by The Wellcome Trust, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the Lister Research Prize.

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