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New research could revolutionize treatment of multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and brain cancer

Scientists have shed light on a previously obscure aspect of brain biology, which may have profound implications for treating a variety of neurological conditions
Scientists have shed light on a previously obscure aspect of brain biology, which may have profound implications for treating a variety of neurological conditions. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In groundbreaking research from Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), scientists have shed light on a previously obscure aspect of brain biology, which may have profound implications for treating a variety of neurological conditions, including multiple sclerosis (MS), Alzheimer's disease, and certain brain cancers such as glioma.

Published in the prestigious journal Nature Neuroscience, this study investigates the intricate synapses between neurons and oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs), revealing their crucial role in myelin formation.


Myelin, a protective sheath surrounding nerve cell axons, is essential for the efficient transmission of electrical signals throughout the nervous system. Disruptions in myelin production can lead to severe neurological issues, as seen in diseases like MS.

The research team at OHSU, led by Kelly Monk, Ph.D., professor and co-director of the Vollum Institute, utilized cutting-edge single-cell imaging techniques on zebrafish to explore these neuron-OPC synapses. The transparency of zebrafish bodies provides a unique window into the dynamics of their central nervous systems, allowing for real-time observation.


"This is the first investigation of these synapses in live tissue," explained Monk. "Understanding how these cells function in normal development lays the groundwork for exploring their behavior in disease contexts, such as in MS patients."

The existence of synapses between neurons and non-neuronal cells like OPCs was first discovered by OHSU researchers two decades ago, marking a significant paradigm shift in neuroscience. Until then, synapses were recognized solely as the conduits for neurotransmitters between neurons.


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"After two decades, we still didn’t know what these synapses do," Monk noted. The current study addresses this gap by demonstrating that these synapses are pivotal for myelin formation.

Jiaxing Li, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Monk’s lab and the study's lead author, highlighted the broader implications of their findings. "OPCs account for about 5% of all brain cells," Li said. "Given their prevalence and the synapses they form, these cells could be highly relevant to numerous neurological diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases and even psychiatric disorders."


The research suggests that neuron-OPC synapses might play roles beyond simple myelin production. For example, they could be crucial in promoting remyelination in diseases like MS, where myelin degradation impairs neural function. "There may be a way to intervene to increase the myelin sheath," Li proposed, suggesting potential therapeutic strategies to modify disease progression by manipulating these synapses.

Moreover, the implications extend into oncology. According to Monk, these synapses could be "hijacked" to facilitate tumor progression in glioma, a type of brain cancer. "It may be possible to modulate the synaptic input involved in tumor formation while still allowing for normal synaptic signaling," Monk explained.

The study also opens up questions about the broader functions of OPCs in the brain. While only a fraction of OPCs develop into oligodendrocytes, the cells responsible for producing myelin, the abundance of OPCs suggests they have additional roles.

"It’s becoming pretty clear that these OPCs have other functions aside from forming oligodendrocytes," Monk stated. "From an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t make sense to have so many of these precursor cells in your brain if they’re not doing something."


The investigation into the synapses between neurons and OPCs not only deepens our understanding of brain physiology but also points to novel approaches for addressing some of the most challenging neurological diseases.

As researchers continue to unravel the complexities of these synaptic interactions, the potential for developing new therapeutic strategies grows, offering hope for patients suffering from a range of debilitating conditions.

This research underscores the importance of studying fundamental biological processes which, though once obscure, may hold the key to significant medical breakthroughs.

In addition to Monk and Li, co-authors include Tania Miramontes of OHSU and Tim Czopka, Ph.D., of the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K.


Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

According to the Mayo Clinic, multiple sclerosis signs and symptoms may differ greatly from person to person and over the course of the disease depending on the location of affected nerve fibers. Symptoms often affect movement, such as:

  • Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs that typically occurs on one side of your body at a time, or your legs and trunk

  • Electric-shock sensations that occur with certain neck movements, especially bending the neck forward (Lhermitte sign)

  • Tremor, lack of coordination or unsteady gait

Vision problems are also common, including:

  • Partial or complete loss of vision, usually in one eye at a time, often with pain during eye movement

  • Prolonged double vision

  • Blurry vision


Multiple sclerosis symptoms may also include:

  • Slurred speech

  • Fatigue

  • Dizziness

  • Tingling or pain in parts of your body

  • Problems with sexual, bowel and bladder function

Symptoms and risk factors can vary in severity and may overlap with other conditions, so it's important to consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


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