Wayne State University School of Medicine researchers, working with colleagues in Canada, have found that one or more substances produced by a type of immune cell in people with multiple sclerosis (MS) may play a role in the disease's progression. The finding could lead to new targeted therapies for MS treatment.
B cells, said Robert Lisak, M.D., professor of neurology at Wayne State and lead author of the study, are a subset of lymphocytes (a type of circulating white blood cell) that mature to become plasma cells and produce immunoglobulins, proteins that serve as antibodies. The B cells appear to have other functions, including helping to regulate other lymphocytes, particularly T cells, and helping maintain normal immune function when healthy.
In patients with MS, the B cells appear to attack the brain and spinal cord, possibly because there are substances produced in the nervous system and the meninges - the covering of the brain and spinal cord - that attract them. Once within the meninges or central nervous system, Lisak said, the activated B cells secrete one or more substances that do not seem to be immunoglobulins but that damage oligodendrocytes, the cells that produce a protective substance called myelin.
The B cells appear to be more active in patients with MS, which may explain why they produce these toxic substances and, in part, why they are attracted to the meninges and the nervous system.
The brain, for the most part, can be divided into gray and white areas. Neurons are located in the gray area, and the white parts are where neurons send their axons - similar to electrical cables carrying messages - to communicate with other neurons and bring messages from the brain to the muscles. The white parts of the brain are white because oligodendrocytes make myelin, a cholesterol-rich membrane that coats the axons. The myelin's function is to insulate the axons, akin to the plastic coating on an electrical cable. In addition, the myelin speeds communication along axons and makes that communication more reliable. When the myelin coating is attacked and degraded, impulses - messages from the brain to other parts of the body - can "leak" and be derailed from their target. Oligodendrocytes also seem to engage in other activities important to nerve cells and their axons.