MS Connection Blog

The Gordon Conference: Advancing Myelin Research

In my former career as a neuroscientist, I studied synapses ― nerve connectors that permit nerve cells to pass electrical or chemical signals to another cell. I learned how important it was to understand how the nervous system functions normally, before you can figure out what goes wrong during the course of a disease.

If we are going to repair damage to the myelin casings that protect nerve connections in MS, we have to know everything possible about the biology of how myelin is normally made. That means studying the cells that make myelin, the genes that instruct them, the molecules they interact with, and the proteins they make. This requires the whole scientific community working together – and that’s what happens at the Myelin Gordon Research Conference, which I recently attended in Ventura, CA...

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Progress in progressive MS: Report from the trenches of MS research

One important way researchers share their latest findings at big meetings like the American Academy of Neurology is during the twice daily “poster sessions.” During these sessions, researchers display the results of their studies on wall sized posters and these posters are pinned to rows upon rows of portable display boards in one of the largest halls of the convention center. During these “sessions” the authors of the posters stand by their boards and are available to present and discuss their work with other scientists. Think scientific speed dating! The MS poster sessions have been jam packed, so it really feels like you are in the trenches of MS research.

We are learning more and more about what drives MS progression, or worsening – which many people with MS will eventually experience. Understanding the factors that drive MS progression will provide new approaches to stopping, reversing and restoring what’s been lost. One of these factors appears to be smoking. Previous studies have shown that smoking can increase the risk of developing secondary progressive MS (the progressive form of MS that follows an initial diagnosis of relapsing MS) by as much as 3-fold! The good news reported this week during a poster session on MS health outcomes research is that this risk is reduced by quitting. The authors found that for every year that passes after a person stops smoking, the risk for progression is reduced by 5%. The reasons why smoking promotes progression remain to be determined, but I think we know enough now to strongly state that people with MS who smoke should really stop...

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Tackling MS symptoms to restore function

I am truly amazed at the breadth of research I am seeing at the AAN on restoring function to people with MS. Scientists are looking virtually everywhere for answers about how to manage symptoms and improve function through novel treatments and rehabilitation techniques.

One great aspect of attending the AAN is hearing about exciting advances in neurology in general – Dr. Albert Lo (we talked about his salsa dance program) presented promising research on rehabilitation robotics at a plenary session to thousands of neurologists. Robots can do heavy lifting for tasks like supporting a person’s weight while they walk on a treadmill, and they can be programmed to provide precise resistance and “dosages” of an exercise. A core concept of rehab is the necessity to do repetitive work. And robots are masters of repetition – an occupational therapy session may require 50 repetitions of an exercise, and robots can guide a person’s arm to do those precise repetitions. We need more proper trials, says Dr. Lo, but it was exciting to see this new frontier of rehabilitation research, which is just beginning to be applied to improving function for people with MS...

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Promising new treatment approaches making news at the AAN meeting

Greetings from Philadelphia! You might remember that Philadelphia was our Nation’s capital during the revolutionary war. This week, the city of brotherly love is the capital of multiple sclerosis research as thousands of neurologists gather here to report their latest discoveries.

I have been impressed by both the number and the quality of studies on emerging therapies for MS being presented this week. One of these studies was the eagerly awaited clinical trial of the pregnancy hormone estriol combined with Copaxone in relapsing-remitting MS. This study was inspired by the observation that MS relapses are less frequent during the third trimester of pregnancy, a time when estriol is at its highest level. In this trial of 164 women, the investigators determined that pregnancy levels of estriol plus Copaxone reduced the rate of relapses after one-year by 47% compared to women taking Copaxone alone. There were also significant positive benefits observed in the scores of cognition tests. These positive effects were less significant in the second year of the study – the reasons why are not clear, but a more thorough analysis might reveal some answers...

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Live from AAN: Research to improve wellness

I am blogging from the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Philadelphia, otherwise known as the AAN meeting. The AAN features thousands of presentations on neurological diseases. I am increasingly impressed with how many of these address wellness and lifestyle in people with MS. Entire sessions are dedicated to topics such as “Diet and Hormonal Influences in MS” and “Cognition and Fatigue in MS.” We are becoming more aware of the diverse paths toward finding solutions for everyone with MS.

And even salsa dancing! Mandelbaum, Lo and colleagues (Providence, RI) reported here on a study in which they enrolled eight people with MS in a four-week salsa dance program. Individuals participated in dance sessions twice a week. Dancing resulted in significant improvements in gait and balance both right after the program and after three months of follow up. The National MS Society is now funding Dr. Lo of this team to conduct a larger study that may lead to more widespread use of dance as physical therapy for MS...

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Now they tell me!

What would we have done differently in our past if we only knew where we were headed?

Two recent studies have made me look back on my life and wonder whether I could have avoided getting multiple sclerosis if I had done things differently.

One study, to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia this week, adds to the body of evidence suggesting that adolescent girls who are obese are at increased risk of developing MS...

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Inspiration for Your Next MRI

I was just thinking about the fact that another MRI is in my near future, as my annual checkup with my neurologist is drawing near. I don’t mind MRIs at all. Before I ever had one, I feared I’d find it claustrophobic. But my yoga practice has taught me how to calm my mind and my breathing, enabling me practically to fall asleep when I’m in that tube.

Of course, not everyone is as comfortable getting MRIs as I am. Many freak out over being so tightly encased in the tube, and some have trouble staying still during the long and noisy scanning period...

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Thanks, AAN!

The American Academy of Neurology recently published guidelines for addressing psychiatric disorders in people with multiple sclerosis. That is an important, and most welcome, step.

As the AAN’s paper points out, people with MS are at increased risk of a number of psychiatric illnesses, particularly depression and a disorder called pseudobulbar affect, a phenomenon in which people laugh or cry at inappropriate times without feeling particularly happy or sad... 

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Sex hormones & MS: An interview with Dr. Rhonda Voskuhl

Following our December webcast, Promising MS Research to Repair, Protect and Restore the Nervous System, we sat down with Dr. Rhonda Voskuhl, MS Program Director at the University of California, Los Angeles, to discuss the work her lab is doing in the area of neuroprotection.

Dr. Voskuhl, would you please explain what neuroprotection is and how that is different from the therapies we have available now?

The therapies we have now were all designed based on our understanding of the immune attack that occurs during MS, where immune cells go in and attack the brain and spinal cord.  Currently, mechanisms involved in that immune attack were all targeted for therapies, which include all the disease modifying therapies on the market today. They were all designed to stop or slow down this immune attack. They have been successful in that they reduce relapses by half or more, but the problem is that they don’t halt permanent disability accumulation...
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Six years less than what?

I just finished reading some news accounts about an unsettling recent study that found people with multiple sclerosis lived an average of six years less than people without MS.

That’s pretty disheartening – if you allow it to be.

I distinctly remember being told when I was diagnosed that my MS would likely not shorten my life. So, when I first got wind of this new research, my heart caught in my throat. What had changed?
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