Demyelination is the loss of the myelin sheath insulating the nerves, and is the hallmark of some neurodegenerative autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, transverse myelitis, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, Guillain-Barré Syndrome, central pontine myelinosis, inherited demyelinating diseases such as Leukodystrophy, and Charcot Marie Tooth. Sufferers of pernicious anaemia can also suffer nerve damage if the condition is not diagnosed quickly. Sub-acute combined degeneration of the spinal cord secondary to pernicious anaemia can lead to anything from slight peripheral nerve damage to severe damage to the central nervous system affecting speech, balance and cognitive awareness. When myelin degrades, conduction of signals along the nerve can be impaired or lost and the nerve eventually withers.
The immune system may play a role in demyelination associated with such diseases, including inflammation causing demyelination by overproduction of cytokines via upregulation of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) or interferon.
Research to repair damaged myelin sheaths is ongoing. Techniques include surgically implanting oligodendrocyte precursor cells in the central nervous system and inducing myelin repair with certain antibodies. While there have been some encouraging results in mice (via stem cell transplantation), it is still unknown whether this technique can be effective in replacing myelin loss in humans.
Dysmyelination is characterized by a defective structure and function of myelin sheaths; unlike demyelination, it does not produce lesions. Such defective sheaths often arise from genetic mutations affecting the biosynthesis and formation of myelin. The shiverer mouse represents one animal model of dysmyelination. Human diseases where dysmyelination has been implicated include leukodystrophies (Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease, Canavan disease, phenylketonuria) and schizophrenia.
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