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» Study offers hope of repairing MS damage

Scientists have identified a way of prompting nerve system repair in multiple sclerosis (MS).

Studies on rats by Cambridge and Edinburgh University researchers identified how to help stem cells in the brain regenerate myelin sheath, needed to protect nerve fibres.

MS charities said the "exciting" Nature Neuroscience work offered hope of restoring physical functions.

But they cautioned it would be some years before treatments were developed.

MS is caused by a defect in the body's immune system, which turns in on itself, and attacks the fatty myelin sheath.

It is thought to affect around 100,000 people in the UK.

Around 85% have the relapsing/remitting form of the condition, in which "flare-ups" which cause disability, are followed by a recovery of a level of the lost physical function.

In this form of MS, there does appear to be some natural myelin repair.

However, around 10% of people are diagnosed with a progressive form of MS, where the decline continues without any periods of remission.

In addition, people with the relapsing/remitting form do often go on to develop what is called secondary progressive MS, which affects them in the same way.

'Missing link'

Scientists have been looking at how they might develop treatments for these two groups.

In MS, loss of the myelin sheaths which act as insulating layers, leads to the nerve fibres in the brain becoming damaged.

These fibres are important as they send messages to other parts of the body.

This study identified a signalling pathway in the brain which can encourage the brain's own stem cells to regenerate new myelin.

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