The search for the cause of multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that affects up to a half million people in the United States, has confounded researchers and medical professionals for generations. But Steven Schutzer, a physician and scientist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, has now found an important clue why progress has been slow - it appears that most research on the origins of MS has focused on the wrong part of the brain.
Look more to the gray matter, the new findings published in PLOS ONE suggest, and less to the white. That change of approach could give physicians effective tools to treat MS far earlier than ever before.
Until recently, most MS research has focused on the brain's white matter, which contains the nerve fibers. And for good reason: Symptoms of the disease, which include muscle weakness and vision loss, occur when there is deterioration of a fatty substance called myelin, which coats nerves contained in the white matter and acts as insulation for them. When myelin in the brain is degraded, apparently by the body's own immune system, and the nerve fiber is exposed, transmission of nerve impulses can be slowed or interrupted. So when patients' symptoms flare up, the white matter is where the action in the brain appears to be.
But Schutzer attacked the problem from a different direction. He is one of the first scientists to analyze patients' cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) by taking full advantage of a combination of technologies called proteomics and high-resolution mass spectrometry. "Proteins present in the clear liquid that bathes the central nervous system can be a window to physical changes that accompany neurological disease," says Schutzer, "and the latest mass spectrometry techniques allow us to see them as never before." In this study, he used that novel approach to compare the cerebrospinal fluid of newly diagnosed MS patients with that of longer term patients, as well as fluid taken from people with no signs of neurological disease.
The advanced analytic tools used in Schutzer's research were developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, a Department of Energy facility. Richard Smith, the lab's director of proteomics research and one of Schutzer's co-investigators, says, "We have been developing these techniques over the past decade and they have matured in the past couple of years, enabling Dr. Schutzer and our team to do the current work."
What Schutzer found startled another of his co-investigators, Patricia K. Coyle of Stony Brook University in New York, one of the leading MS clinicians and researchers in the country. The proteins in the CSF of the new MS patients suggested physiological disruptions not only in the white matter of the brain where the myelin damage eventually shows up. They also pointed to substantial disruptions in the gray matter, a different part of the brain that contains the axons and dendrites and synapses that transfer signals between nerves.