Early indications that a person might have multiple sclerosis (MS), according to recent research, might be found through testing a person’s spinal fluid. This new early diagnostic test, and the increasing evidence that MS affects both the white and grey matter of the brain, might lead to new treatments that will help diagnose and treat MS earlier, and might help researchers learn more about how the disease forms.
On Tuesday, the new study on MS was published.Though more research is needed, as it was a small study, the results of it indicate that scientists should be refocusing their investigations on a different area of the human brain than has usually been considered to be related to the onset of MS.
According to the National MS Society’s chief resource officer, Timothy Coetzee (who wasn’t one of the researchers who participated in the study):
It really tells us that MS may be affecting more parts of the brain much earlier than we anticipated.”
The disease multiple sclerosis affects a person’s neurological symptom, including the spine and brain. Symptoms can be different from person to person. One person might experience tingling and numbness, while another one experience full or partial loss of vision, and difficulty walking. The symptoms fluctuate, and are experienced in varying degrees at different points in a person’s life.
Treatments for MS exist, but there isn’t a cure for the disease. The cause or causes of MS are still unknown to doctors, but they do know that when the myelin or protective coating which insulates nerve fibers is slowly destroyed, scar tissue is left behind. The tough layer of scar tissue results in a short-circuit that disrupts messages from the spinal column and the brain from getting to the other parts of a person’s body.
One problem with using brain scans to detect early damage is that they can’t detect it very well. If someone has symptoms of MS, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that person actually has the disease — the symptoms could be from some other cause.
By analyzing the spinal fluid samples from nine people whose initial symptoms were because they had multiple sclerosis, Rutgers doctor, Steven Schutzer, discovered a protein cluster that only seemed to occur during the preliminary MS attacks.
The new study used spinal fluid as an alternative window into the brain to examine those first attacks.
The tiny protein cluster was what differentiated early MS patients both from people without the disease and ones who had it for a longer period of time. Dr. Schutzer published the results of his research in the PLoS One journal.
Larger-scale studies need to be done, but if they also uphold Dr. Schutzer’s findings, a spinal tap might be how doctors test patients in the earliest stages of MS in the future, according to a co-author of the study, Dr. Patricia Coyle.
One surprise the co-authors of the study discovered while doing their research is that, apart from myelin damage that affects the white matter of the brain, the grey matter of the brain is also affected and damaged.
Coyle said the finding was “striking,” because now, different therapies can be developed for the gray matter of the brain. The information they uncovered, suggests, Coyle said, that “the gray matter injury is critical and happens early.”
Dr. Coyle added that “It may be gray matter features that allow MS to present, and that is really a novel concept.” This knowledge, she said, “potentially offers a diagnostic test.”
Contrary to what had been long regarded as a fact, that MS begins in the white matter areas of the brain, this new research indicates that MS might actually begin in the brain’s gray matter. That knowledge and the new testing for the tiny distinguishing protein cluster that occurs in people in the early stages of MS might lead to different and more effective treatments for the disease.
Written by: Douglas Cobb