Achieving a new method of nanoscopic imaging, scientists at UC Santa Barbara have paved the way for new experimental methods for early detection, diagnosis, staging, and possible treatment of pathological tissues that are precursors to multiple sclerosis and other membrane-associated diseases.
The new technique enabled the scientific team to study the myelin sheath, the membrane surrounding nerves that is compromised in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).
"Myelin membranes are a class of biological membranes that are only two molecules thick, less than one millionth of a millimeter," said Jacob Israelachvili, one of the senior authors and professor of chemical engineering and of materials at UCSB. "The membranes wrap around the nerve axons to form the myelin sheath."
At the microscopic level and the macroscopic level, which is visible to the eye, MS is characterized by the appearance of lesions or vacuoles in the myelin, and eventually results in the complete disintegration of the myelin sheath. This progressive disintegration is called demyelination.
The researchers focused on what happens at the molecular level, commonly referred to as the nanoscopic level. This requires highly sensitive visualization and characterization techniques.
They observed differences in the appearance, size, and sensitivity to pressure, of domains in the healthy and diseased monolayers. Next, they developed a theoretical model, in terms of certain molecular properties, that appears to account quantitatively for their observations.
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.