Multiple sclerosis: what causes damage and destruction of the nervous system? | Children's Charity

Multiple sclerosis: what causes damage and destruction of the nervous system?

First published on 12 February 2013

Updated on 3 August 2015

What did the project achieve?

“We’ve found out more about the changes that might be taking place inside the body when children have multiple sclerosis or MS,” says Professor Linington of the University of Glasgow. “This sort of knowledge is important if we are to develop new treatments.”

Estimates suggest three to 10 per cent of people with MS develop the condition before they’re 18 years old.1 Symptoms vary, but can include fatigue, dizziness and problems with eyesight, balance, memory and coordination.

Symptoms result from damage to nerves within the brain and spinal cord, but it’s unclear why this damage happens.

“Some children with MS have antibodies in their blood that recognise a specific component of nerves,” says Professor Linington. “Before starting this project, we suspected that these antibodies might play a key role in damaging nerves. Unexpectedly, the results of our laboratory work suggest our suspicions are wrong. We discovered instead that these antibodies might stop damaged nerves from being repaired properly.”

“Our work suggests treatments that reduce the levels of these problematic antibodies in the blood might benefit children with MS,” says Professor Linington. “We hope to study this possibility further.”

References

1. Banwell B et al. Multiple sclerosis in children: clinical diagnosis, therapeutic strategies, and future directions. The Lancet Neurology 2007; 6: 887–902.

This research was completed on 28 February 2014

Evidence suggests around three to 10 per cent of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) suffer their first symptoms during childhood.1 Children’s symptoms include fatigue, dizziness and problems with eyesight, balance, memory and concentration. These symptoms result from damage to the nervous system and disrupt both schooling and family life. Professor Christopher Linington, of the University of Glasgow, is investigating what causes this damage in MS and related diseases including acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). His work could lead to badly needed new treatments.

What is the problem and who does it affect?

“When a child develops MS, one shouldn’t underestimate how devastating it can be,” says Professor Linington. “There is no cure. Children suffer similar symptoms to adults. At first, their symptoms might come and go, but over time they develop permanent disabilities.”

“Perhaps one of the cruellest things about MS is that there is no way of predicting how a particular child will be in a year, five years or 10 years’ time,” adds Professor Linington. “We can’t be sure what sort of symptoms they will experience. One child might have relatively mild disease, at least at first, whereas another might eventually need to use a wheelchair. What’s more, we can’t predict how each child will respond to treatment.”

The symptoms of MS result from damage within the brain and spinal cord. Similar damage occurs in other illnesses too, including ADEM. Researchers have for many years been looking for ways to prevent this damage.

“Drugs can reduce the frequency and severity of relapses in some adults with MS. They are increasingly used in children too, but they’re not licensed as trials have never been run in children,” explains Professor Linington. “Unfortunately, treatment of children is very much a black box.”

What is the project trying to achieve?

Professor Linington explains: “Although we know that children with MS have damage to nerves within the brain and spinal cord, we know very little about exactly how, or why, this damage occurs. We are trying to find out more.”

“Some children with MS, and ADEM, have antibodies in their blood that recognise a specific component of their own nerves,” explains Professor Linington. “We suspect that these particular antibodies play a central role in damaging nerves and might influence the severity and progression of children’s illness.”

“In this project, we are trying to find out whether or not our suspicions about these antibodies are correct. If we are correct, then treatments that have already been used to tackle problem antibodies in other illnesses might benefit some children with MS, and we’d strongly recommend urgent investigations into this possibility.”

The research team is performing laboratory studies using blood samples from over 100 children with MS and related illnesses around the world.

What are the researchers’ credentials?

Professor Linington and his colleague, Professor Hugh Willison, are at the forefront of this type of research internationally. They have excellent track records and the facilities at the University of Glasgow, where they are based, are superb.

Project LeaderProfessor Christopher Linington PhD
Project team
  • Professor Hugh J Willison PhD FRCP FRSE
LocationInstitute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, University of Glasgow
Duration1 year
Grant awarded12 November 2012
Start date1 March 2013
End date28 February 2014
Grant amount£51,824.00
Grant codeGN2044
AcknowledgementsThis project is supported by a generous donation from The R S Macdonald Charitable Trust

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References

  1. Banwell B et al. Multiple sclerosis in children: clinical diagnosis, therapeutic strategies, and future directions. The Lancet Neurology 2007; 6: 887–902
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