Finding faster, easier ways to measure MS

When I was a lab researcher, it was all about digging deeper to find a specific scientific answer. But when it comes to helping people cope with their MS right now, we need to be able to find answers that don’t require so much digging. Emerging technologies and strategies are beginning to allow us to measure and predict the disease and its effects, and take stock of how treatments are working, without making people endure yet another invasive test.

Now I find myself at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) meeting in Washington, DC. It’s been fascinating to hear about the many clinicians and scientists who are working to devise quick tests to detect MS activity and damage – often before there are any outward signs that the individual or doctor can see.

Young investigator Dr. Sonya Bakshi (National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD) examined whether simply measuring vibration sensation in the hands or feet of people with MS would tell them something about tissue damage, comparing it to MRI scans. In a small but novel study, vibration sensation was shown to be worse in people with MS, compared with people without MS. Worse disability scores and lower brain volume were both linked with worse vibration sensation.

We need to see if these results will hold up in larger studies, but it certainly seems like a simple and quick way of catching underlying damage. How might that help a person living with the disease? Well for one, maybe detecting this kind of change would spur a conversation about initiating or changing therapy. (Abstract P3.228*)

The eyes are turning out to be amazing windows to disease activity. For example, researchers are increasingly looking at eye tests like optical coherence tomography (OCT) to detect damage to the optic nerve. And there’s early evidence that this may reflect disease activity in other parts of the nervous system in MS.

In this regard, I saw a poster by another young investigator, Dr. Samuel Arnow, and a team at the University of California, San Francisco, who put a novel spin on this research. They administered color vision testing, an easy test where people observe colored letters on a computer screen, to 135 people with MS, along with OCT. Problems with viewing red, green, and blue contrasts linked strongly with thinning of sections of the optic nerve. Again, we need to see these findings confirmed, but this is aneasy test that could help to pin down vision and nerve tissue damage in a very noninvasive fashion. (Abstract P3.227*)

We all know that many people with MS experience some problems with mobility, but it’s not always easy to quantify and keep tabs on these issues, which is key to understanding how to minimize effects on daily life. Dr. Alexander Brandt (Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin) and colleagues are taking a ‘high-tech’ approach to assessing walking, gait and coordination. They designed a 20-minute test using “Microsoft Kinect,” a motion sensing input device used for video game consoles. The team administered the test, along with more traditional measures of disease activity, to 99 people with MS and 62 people without MS. They found that the test – which involves speed walks, a line walk, stance tests, a stepping test, an arm-holding test and a finger-to-nose test – lined up well with traditional measures.

Now the team is following up to determine how effective this test will be at detecting changes in mobility over time. (Abstract P3.223*) This could be a great way to evaluate how people MS are getting around, and to pinpoint important changes that may affect quality of life.

It’s exciting to see these efforts, just a small sample of literally hundreds of MS studies being presented this week, bring the best science and technology to bear so that people with MS can live their best lives now, while we continue to dig deeper to find answers that will one day end this disease forever. I hope you’ll stay tuned to read other blogs from our research team attending the AAN meeting, which will include studies focusing on diet, progressive MS, and nervous system repair.

*In order to access abstract, you will first need to visit the AAN website and sign in as a guest.

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Mark Allegretta, PhD

Dr. Mark Allegretta is the Vice President of Research at the National MS Society, leading commercial research including partnerships developed through Fast Forward. He brings expertise in immunology and 28 years of experience in biotechnology and pharmaceutical operations to help drive the development of new therapies to stop MS and restore function.