Nerve cells damaged in diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), ‘talk’ to stem cells in the same way that they communicate with other nerve cells, calling out for ‘first aid’, according to new research from the University of Cambridge.
This is the first time that we’ve been able to show that damaged nerve fibres communicate with stem cells using synaptic connections – the same connections they use to ‘talk to’ other nerve cells.
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, may have significant implications for the development of future medicines for disorders that affect myelin sheath, the insulation that protects and insulates our nerve cells.
For our brain and central nervous system to work, electrical signals must travel quickly along nerve fibres. This is achieved by insulating the nerve fibres with a fatty substance called myelin. In diseases such as MS, the myelin sheath around nerve fibres is lost or damaged, causing physical and mental disability.
Stem cells – the body’s master cells, which can develop into almost any type of cell – can act as ‘first aid kits’, repairing damage to the body. In our nervous system, these stem cells are capable of producing new myelin, which, in the case of MS, for example, can help recover lost function. However, myelin repair often fails, leading to sustained disability. To understand why repair fails in disease, and to design novel ways of promoting myelin repair, researchers at the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council Stem Cell Institute at the University of Cambridge studied how this repair process works.