About 50 million people in the EU suffer from neurological diseases such as epilepsy, migraines, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, strokes and dementia.
These disorders account for 35 percent of the total health care burden in this region. That means not only a lot of human suffering but also a burden of some Euro130 billion on the European economies, noted Professor Ionnis Milonas, chairman of the annual Congress of the European Neurological Society at Rhodos. The latest research findings are also being discussed at the ENS Congress. Researchers are presenting innovative methods for repairing nerve damage and reporting about their studies on the therapeutic potential of stem cells in treating multiple sclerosis.
Rhodos, 18 June 2007 - "Neurological diseases are increasingly widespread throughout the world, especially in Europe, and incur heavy costs," warned Professor Dr. Ioannis Milonas at the annual Congress of the European Neurological Society (ENS) on the Greek island of Rhodos. "According to WHO data, neurological diseases as well as mental and neurosurgical suffering account for no less than 35 percent of the health care burden in European countries," noted Professor Milonas, head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Thessaloniki and chairman of the ENS Congress.
Elaborating on current data, Professor Milonas noted that there are about 46 million cases of neurological diseases such as epilepsy, migraines, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and stroke among the 466 million inhabitants in the EU (excluding the two new members Romania and Bulgaria, but including the non-members Iceland, Norway and Switzerland). A further five million people suffer from dementia, a disease classified both as a neurological and a mental disorder.
Professor Milonas added: "Neurological diseases incur costs of Euro84 billion a year. Migraines account for about Euro27 billion of the total, strokes for about Euro22 billion, epilepsy for about Euro15.5 billion, Parkinson's for about Euro10.5 billion and multiple sclerosis for about Euro9 billion." Dementia, for its part, is associated with financial outlays of Euro55 billion. For brain and nervous system diseases as a whole, i.e. including mental illnesses such as depression, addiction and anxiety disorders and neurosurgical diseases such as brain injuries and tumors, the costs in Europe total a staggering Euro386 billion.
Repairing Damage from Brain and Spinal Cord Injuries Professor Milonas: "Events like this Congress of the European Neurological Society are so significant because they showcase and discuss new research findings that can help to bring about substantial progress in the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of neurological diseases." One priority topic of the ENS Congress is devoted to possible ways of repairing damage from brain and spinal cord injuries. About 710,000 people suffer traumas of these kinds in Europe every year, incurring subsequent costs of some Euro2.9 billion.
An Antibody as an Enabler of New Nerve Growth "A scientist at the University of Zurich is presenting promising research at the ENS Congress. In experiments on animals, he has succeeded in restimulating nerve growth following nerve injuries and strokes," explained Professor Milonas. In the human brain and spinal cord, nerve fiber growth is basically restricted to distances of 0.2 to 2 millimeters. It is inhibited by several substances contained in the myelin sheaths, the coverings on the nerves in the central nervous system. One such substance is the highly potent membrane protein Nogo-A.
In a study presented at the ENS Congress, researchers developed an antibody to counter the growth inhibitor Nogo-A and tested its effect on nerve injuries and strokes in animal experiments. The authors of the study reported success in stimulating nerve fiber growth over comparatively long distances and "substantial improvement in functional restoration" as regards activities such as running, swimming or gripping. Professor Milonas: "The new agent is currently being tested in a phase 1 clinical study in a European network of centers for spinal cord injuries."
A researcher at the University Clinic in Aachen, Germany, is presenting a research study at the ENS Congress on ways of preventing the formation of scar tissue following nerve injuries. "The German colleague suggests that agents originally created or tested for other applications be examined to determine their usefulness in this special area," explained Professor Milonas. "Partial successes were achieved with the anti-inflammatory agents Rolipram and Thalidomide in animal tests, bringing about improved motor functions following nerve injuries."
Aligning Rehabilitation with Recovery Phases Following Nerve Injuries Following brain injuries, skills that initially appear to have been lost can often be restored to a suprisingly great extent. This comes about from a reorganization of nerve structures in the brain that compensate for the functions of the failed parts of the brain. The process proceeds quite differently from one individual to the next depending on the area of the brain injured and the functions impaired, e.g. motor or language skills, and can be divided into different phases. These phases are also proved in current data presented at the ENS Congress by a researcher from the Neurological University Clinic in Freiburg.
The data shows, for example, that patients suffering from speech impairments after a brain injury go through an initial shock phase followed by a phase of hyperactivity and finally a normalization phase. This time sequence can also be verified with magnetic resonance examinations of nerve cell activity in the affected areas of the brain. The idea the German scientist put up for discussion is that the various phases of recovery should be accompanied by different medicinal therapies and treatment methods specially geared to each phase.
Stem Cells as Possible Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis The possible therapeutic uses of stem cells are now under investigation in a wide variety of medical fields. Stem cells are cells capable of unlimited cell division and of differentiating into a diverse range of cell types. Stromal cells, for their part, form the support structure of an organism. Bone Marrow Stromal Cells (BMSCs) are non-hematogenic (non-blood-building) stem cells, which can become, inter alia, cells of the central nervous system. Greek scientists at the University of Thessaloniki have conducted in vitro examinations to determine whether these BMSCs can survive in the presence of cytokines, a group of proteins and peptides that play a role in human immune and special inflammatory responses.
These types of inflammatory environments are present for example in patients with multiple sclerosis. "The basic experiment was highly encouraging, which is why bone marrow stromal cells were tested as a cell-based therapy for treating multiple sclerosis," explained Professor Milonas and noted that the transplantation of neural stem cells has already been tested in an animal study conducted by a Greek-Israeli team of researchers: "The possible effect of stem cells on multiple sclerosis was also tested in this model experiment. They were shown to bring about a reduction in inflammations in the brain and tissue injuries."