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Brain ‘plasticity’ in rats could help scientists understand multiple sclerosis

SCI researchers along with co-investigators from the Universities of Verona and Milano-Bicocca (Italy) have managed to demonstrate in rats a phenomenon known as brain plasticity, whereby the brain recruits new networks of neurons to compensate for those damaged by disease. The researchers hope that this finding in a rat disease model will provide new insights into multiple sclerosis (MS) and allow for the development and testing of potential new treatments.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the nerve cells, stripping them of their insulation, or ‘myelin sheath’. The disease can affect nerve cells in the brain, causing them to temporarily – or permanently – stop functioning.

Studies in humans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which shows brain activity by tracking blood flow, have demonstrated that the brains of patients affected by MS are able to recruit different areas of the brain to compensate for this damage limiting its impact on the patient.

In a study reported today in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers the University of Cambridge in the UK and the Universities of Verona and Milano-Bicocca in Italy, show for the first time that the brain of rats with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), which has similar symptoms of damage to the central nervous system as can be seen in MS, also demonstrate plasticity.

The researchers used a combination of fMRI as well as structural MRI and post-mortem examination of the rats’ brains to demonstrate that the structure of the rats’ brains had changed in response to the disease, suggesting that they were recruiting different areas of the brain to compensate for damage.

“Brain plasticity is an important phenomenon that we see in the brains of patients with multiple sclerosis,” explains Dr Stefano Pluchino from the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Institute Stem Cell Institute and the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “We see it too in our laboratory rats, which suggest that these animals will be a useful model for MS and will help us to develop and test innovative new treatments for this potentially devastating disease, including new drugs and stem cell treatments.”

This research was funded by the Italian Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and the European Research Council.

Stefano Tambalo*, Luca Peruzzotti-Jametti*, Roberta Rigolio*, Silvia Fiorini, Pietro Bontempi, Giulia Mallucci, Beatrice Balzarotti, Paola Marmiroli, Andrea Sbarbati, Guido Cavaletti, Stefano Pluchino and Pasquina Marzola. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Rats with Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis Reveals Brain Cortex Remodeling. Journal of Neuroscience. 8 July 2015. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0540-15.2015

 *equal contribution.

Contact details
Craig Brierley
Head of Research Communications
University of Cambridge
+44 (0)1223 766205

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Rats with Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis Reveals

3D rendering of fMRI response to somatosensory stimulation in EAE rat brain showing substantial cortical reorganization with progressive recruitment of bilateral brain regions in relapsing (blue) and chronic (green) stages of the disease compared to healthy control rats (red)

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