Multiple Sclerosis (MS) can be an extremely difficult disease to deal with, as the life long disorder can cause serious disability.
The disease is the result of damage to the brain or spinal chord, which can leave people with vision problems, problem controlling their bodies, and a reduced life expectancy.
While symptoms often range from mild to severe, it is possible to treat, however no cure exists yet.
A recent study has now revealed a new type of brain cell could be key to understanding the course of the disease, and paves the way for a completely new treatment.
What are astrocytes?
Astrocytes are star-shaped ‘glial’ cells present in the nervous system, responsible for providing support and protection for neurons.
Neurons carry electrical impulses through the brain, and are responsible for transmitting signals through gaps between them named synapses, connecting the entire body.
As such, astrocytes play an important part in maintaining the brain and body, but scientists have been investigating whether they are also a factor in harming vital brain function.
The latest research suggests they may also be involved in promoting disease.
Scientists are at the moment interested as to whether astrocytes actually drive inflammation.
This is important as some major debilitating diseases like MS form as a result, and the latest research has found a connection.
Researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) in California have identified an astrocyte subpopulation as a dominant cell type which jumps into action in living organisms during brain inflammation.
Now named immediate early astrocytes (ieAstrocytes for short) these cells increased in number as brain inflammation progressed, indicating they play a key role in disease.
The next step would be to reduce the ‘malicious’ brain cell population in hopes that brain inflammation may recede.
Dr Jerold Chun, senior author of the paper said: “Developing therapies that prevent the formation of ieAstrocytes or reduce their activation levels in the brain could offer new approaches for treating neuroinflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases.”
However, it is entirely possible that reducing the astrocytes would also work to increase brain damage rather than reduce it.
This is very much the case when it comes to diseases like Alzheimers.
Doctor Magdalena Sastre, reader in Molecular Neuroscience at Imperial College London’s Faculty of Medicine, said the purpose of glial cells like astrocytes are yet to be determined.
Talking exclusively to Express.co.uk, she said: “It is still unclear whether glial cells are neuroprotective (protect the brain) or they contribute to neuronal toxicity.
“This may depend on the stage of the disease.
“We have found that in fact, astrocytes are neuroprotective in Alzheimer’s disease because if we deplete them the animals get more amyloid plaque and aggravation of memory loss.”
So, if some day scientists were able to reduce the ieAstrocyte number in the brain and reduce inflammation, chances are other less desirable conditions could set in.