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Study: Destructiveness of MS cuts nerves in two

Graphic

Damage more extensive than previously thought

January 28, 1998
Web posted at: 8:31 p.m. EDT (2031 GMT)

BOSTON (CNN) -- New evidence shows that multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that affects more than 300,000 Americans, may be more destructive to nerve cells that previously thought.

According to a study in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at The Cleveland Clinic discovered that in some MS patients, axons -- the long fibers on nerve cells that allow for transmission of electrical impulses through the body -- are severed. Such damage is permanent and irreversible, the researchers said.

Until now, the conventional wisdom was that MS stripped away the myelin, or outside covering, of nerve cells in the brain and spine -- and that those cells could compensate for the loss. Scientists believed that was why many MS patients seemed to get better for a time before beginning another downhill slide.

But by examining the autopsied brains of 11 MS patients and four who did not, researchers concluded that MS not only damages the myelin but cuts the axons. That may explain why some patients steadily decline, rather that deteriorating in spurts.

However, due to the small number of patients in the Cleveland study, researchers said they were unable to determine how common severing of the axons is among MS patients at large.

Though the new discovery indicates that the damage wrought by MS may be worse than previously thought, experts say the breakthrough may actually lead to the development of new treatments for MS.

"I think there's hope that neuro-protective therapies that are being developed for other neuro-degenerative disease, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and ALS, may prove fruitful as therapeutics in multiple sclerosis," said Bruce Trapp of The Cleveland Clinic.

The new information also led researchers to the conclusion that damage to nerve cells in people with MS might begin even before they notice any symptoms. So the research raises the possibility that patients ought to begin treatment very early in the course of the disease.

MS produces symptoms ranging from numbness to paralysis to blindness. Most of its victims are between 20 and 40 years old. There is no known cure, but several drugs on the market can alleviate the symptoms for a period of time.

Medical Correspondent Al Hinman and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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