Development of a new cell-culture system opens up new avenues of research in the field of multiple sclerosis. This system mimics how nerve cell fibers in the brain become coated with protective myelin.
MS has long been considered a disease of white matter, a reference to the white-coloured bundles of myelin-coated axons that project from the main body of a brain cell. But researchers have discovered that the condition also affects myelinated axons scattered in grey matter that contains main bodies of brain cells, and specifically the hippocampus region, which is important for learning and memory.
Researchers suspect that cognitive problems are caused by abnormal electrical activities of the demyelinated axons extending from hippocampal cells, but until now have not been able to test myelin's role in this part of the brain.
Ohio State University researchers have created a system in which two types of cells interact in a dish as they do in nature: neurons from the hippocampus and other brain cells, called oligodendrocytes, whose role is to wrap myelin around the axons.
Now that the researchers can study how myelination is switched on and off for hippocampal neurons, they also can see how myelin does more than provide insulation - it also has a role in controlling nerve impulses travelling between distant parts of the nervous system. Identifying this mechanism when myelin is present will help improve understanding of what happens when axons in this critical area of the brain lose myelin as a result of MS, researchers said.
The study is detailed in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.