Experiments offer major clue to repairing diseased nerves

CHAPEL HILL -- Using specially designed and bred laboratory mice, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have discovered that a well-known protein in the body called tumor necrosis factor-alpha plays a central role in how nerves and the brain repair themselves.

The discovery is a surprise, the UNC School of Medicine researchers say, because the protein, a cytokine produced during inflammation, has traditionally been considered something that makes illnesses worse, not better. Taking advantage of the new knowledge potentially could lead to more effective treatments for such illnesses as multiple sclerosis.

"Were far from using this in any way to help patients directly, and we dont want to get hopes up prematurely," said Dr. Jenny P.-Y. Ting, Alumni Distinguished professor of microbiology and immunology at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the neurobiology curriculum. "Still, this is a different way of thinking about remyelination that undoubtedly will be useful and important in the future."

Remyelination is the repair process in the brain by which nerve cells regain the natural fatty sheath, called myelin, that surrounds them and allows them to transmit nerve impulses, Ting said. It often occurs to varying degrees in people with multiple sclerosis and other brain illnesses who have suffered demylination. That disease process involves the loss of fat covering nerves -- something like rubber insulation eroded away from electric wires.

A report on the findings will appear in the November issue of Nature Neuroscience and was posted online Oct. 15. Besides Ting, authors include doctoral student and first author Heather A. Arnett, Dr. Glenn K. Matsushima, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, and Dr. Kinuko Suzuki, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, all of UNCs Neuroscience Center.

In their experiments, the team relied on an existing mouse model of demyelination

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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