When scientists analyzed a mysterious neurological affliction in cats, they have found that their central nervous system has a unique ability to repair itself and restore function.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have revealed that myelin restoration in cats can lead to functional recovery.
Myelin is a fatty insulator of nerve fibers that degrades in a host of human central nervous system disorders, the most common of which is multiple sclerosis.
"The fundamental point of the study is that it proves unequivocally that extensive remyelination can lead to recovery from a severe neurological disorder. It indicates the profound ability of the central nervous system to repair itself," said Ian Duncan, the UW-Madison neuroscientist who led the research.
The finding paves the way for strategies to re-establish myelin as a therapy for treating a range of severe neurological diseases linked with the loss or damage of myelin, but where the nerves themselves remain intact.
The researchers started the study after getting intrigued by a mysterious affliction of pregnant cats that had developed severe neurological dysfunction-including movement disorders, vision loss and paralysis-via diets that had been irradiated.
Taken off the diet, the cats recovered slowly, but eventually all lost functions were restored.
"After being on the diet for three to four months, the pregnant cats started to develop progressive neurological disease. Cats put back on a normal diet recovered. It's a very puzzling demyelinating disease," said Duncan.
Duncan said that the afflicted cats were shown to have severe and widely-distributed demyelination of the central nervous system.
Although the neurological symptoms exhibited by the cats were similar to those experienced by humans with demyelination disorders, the disease was not close to the known myelin-related diseases of humans. When myelin was removed from the diet, recovery was slow, but all of the previously demyelinated axons became remyelinated.
However, Duncan noted that the restored myelin sheaths were not as thick as healthy myelin.
"It's not normal, but from a physiological standpoint, the thin myelin membrane restores function. It's doing what it is supposed to do," he said.
"The key thing is that it absolutely confirms the notion that remyelinating strategies are clinically important," he added.
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.