What have you found out about myelin repair that you didn’t know last year?

In this video Claire interviews Dr Anna Williams who is a Neurologist. The interview was filmed by Sigrid

Video transcript

Claire: So could you tell us something about myelin repair which you didn’t know at this time last year?

Dr Anna Williams, Neurologist: Yes. I’ve been thinking about this question, because things go quite slowly in myelin research, but I suppose what I would say is something that’s been at least discovered more in the last year is that the cells that actually do repair myelin are able to do that without any signal. So to explain that, if I take, these cells are oligodendrocytes, and if I put them in a dish, they can grow quite happily and they want to repair the myelin on nerves. But actually what you can do is you can actually just give them fibres, so these are just plastic fibres, so they look like nerves in that they’re long and thin and they’re about the same shape as nerves. But these cells will just wrap those up, so they don’t need anything to tell them it’s a nerve, all they need to do is have something long and thin, which is quite interesting. So these cells basically are designed to wrap up things that are long and thin. So it doesn’t have to be a nerve, it can be a bit of plastic. So I think that’s quite interesting, but what you can do is – so they’ll do that automatically and they’ll do that in a dish for you – but you can make them do it more by giving them signals from nerves. So nerves conduct electricity and when the nerves conduct electricity they release substances around them. And so if you add those substances to the oligodendrocytes they don’t just wrap a little bit, they wrap more. So the idea is that they have this innate ability to wrap up long thin things, but you can actually modulate that by giving things like you can make the nerves fire, for example, and then they will do it better.

So this is what we call activity dependent myelination, so if you’re more active, your nerve’s more active, you’ll get more myelin. So I think that’s quite interesting, because there’s similar nerves – sorry – similar cells in the nerves of your arms and legs which also make myelin, but are not affected in MS, and they won’t do this. So they can wrap up nerves in your arms and legs with myelin, they’re called Schwann cells, but if you put them with long thin things they know that they’re plastic, they don’t know they’re plastic, but they know that they’re not nerves. So they can’t wrap up those, whereas oligodendrocytes can, so they have this inherent and absolute ability to wrap long thin things, which in itself is quite interesting. Why, how? No idea, why they know. They must be able to sort of work out what is a shape, which again is interesting. So how does a cell know what a long thin thing is if it’s not getting signals? It must just say if it’s long and thin and therefore it wraps it up. So I think that’s very interesting and can be used.

Claire: I was going to say, how’s that going to help, how can that be…

Dr Anna Williams: Well, we know that they are inherently able to wrap up things, so that’s a good idea. So even if your nerves are not working very well, as long as they’re long and thin, they should be able to do something. But also it means that you can add the things that you know make it myelinate better, so you can sort of say, can we make it look like these nerves are active so that they’ll wrap up better. So I think it’s quite good on the two levels; is we know there’s a basic ability to repair, but you can also make it do it better by changing the activity or pretending to change the activity of the nerves, which I think is interesting.

Claire: It sounds it. And has it progressed, has your work progressed as you’d sort of expected in this year?

Dr Anna Williams: It always goes slower than you’d like and you always think this is something I’d really like to do, but something happens and it’s never quite as quick. But also, other things go in different directions and sometimes you’re slogging away trying to get something to work and then suddenly everything works and within four weeks you’ve got lots of stuff and you think, ooh, how did that happen? So it goes both ways. So I think it’s probably been a reasonable, an average year in terms of making progress forward, which is good. Yeah, no I think it’s been good.

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