Leading experts meet to help advance motor neurone research

World renowned experts on motor neurone disease will share their work at an international symposium hosted by the University of Edinburgh tomorrow (WED) to enable greater understanding of the condition.

No cure exists for the debilitating and ultimately fatal disease, which can lead to paralysis and severe breathing difficulties.

By bringing experts together it is hoped to encourage collaboration to find desperately needed developments in treatment, with the ultimate worldwide goal of finding a cure.

Professor Richard Ribchester, of the University's School of Biomedical Sciences, said: "In the past decade alone there have been many developments relating to our understanding of motor neurone disease.
Only by scientists working together to understand the exact mechanisms of this condition will we be able to improve, what are at present, very limited treatments.

"While in some instances there is a genetic link to motor neurone disease, in the majority of cases we do not know what causes it and what risk factors there may be. By combining areas such as regenerative medicine, stem cell research, neuroscience, molecular medicine and genetics, we will be able to shed more light on several important unanswered questions that are presently blocking progress towards finding better treatments and a cure for the disease."

The symposium, which takes place at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, follows on from a recent announcement that the University is to set up the Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research. The centre is possible due to a donation from Euan MacDonald, 32, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2003 and his father Donald, a leading Scottish businessman. It is now seeking to appoint a senior clinical fellow to co-ordinate its clinical and basic research.

Motor neurone disease is caused by the breakdown of motor neurones - cells which control voluntary muscle activity, such as speaking, walking and breathing. The University already has a strong research base into the condition and scientists at the symposium will discuss work including whether excessive use of motor neurons can worsen or trigger the disease.

This involves looking at the role of glutamate, the brain's main excitatory chemical neurotransmitter, which has raised levels in some forms of motor neurone disease. If scientists can discover why raised glutamate levels occur and how they cause motor neurones to degenerate they may be able to develop drugs that combat the progression of the disease.

Other research discussed involves the link between motor neurons and cognitive function, such as language use, decision making and dementia.

It is estimated that cognitive ability is affected in between 25 and 50 per cent of motor neurone disease patients. In some, this may be so subtle that patients are not even aware of it and changes in brain function can only be picked up by brain scanning, but in up to five per cent of cases this can involve dementia. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are looking at why cognitive function is impaired in some patients and not others.

Studies involving language function also demonstrate that MND patients often have more difficulty producing and understanding verbs as opposed to nouns. This could reflect a close connection between performing an action and speaking or even thinking about it.

Research in the area of regenerative medicine discussed at the symposium will include why zebrafish are able to regenerate large numbers of motor neurones after damage to the spinal cord and to look at how they are replaced from local stem cells. This will be done by studying transgenic zebra fish and fish with beneficial gene mutations.

The event will include lectures from Professor Jeff Rothstein, director of the Packard Centre at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Professor Don Cleveland of the University of California, San Diego and Professor Nigel Leigh, of Kings College, London - all leading researchers on motor neurone disease.

Motor neurone disease affects one in 20,000 people. It can be detected in an adult at any age but is predominantly diagnosed in people over 40, with most cases reported in 50 to 70 year olds

Craig Stockton, chief executive of the Scottish Motor Neurone Disease Association, a major co-sponsor of the symposium, said: "This is an exciting new development which provides a great opportunity for researchers within Scotland to hear about the latest developments within the world of MND from some of the leading scientists in the field. It is an excellent opportunity for new collaborations to be made and new ideas developed. Although the symposium is aimed at researchers, those affected by the condition, will also be greatly encouraged to know that such a meeting is taking place."

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