16 February 2021

For people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), the myelin that covers nerve fibres in the central nervous system (brain, optic nerves and spinal cord) is damaged, leading to impairment of cognitive, motor and sometimes sensory functions.

While undertaking a postdoctoral fellowship at University College London in 2008, Associate Professor Kaylene Young reported that an immature cell population found in the developing brain also existed in adulthood. These immature cells, called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells or 'OPCs', were not only found throughout the mature central nervous system, but continued to generate a significant number of new brain cells.

Through an effective clinical collaboration we are currently undertaking an exciting clinical trial to deliver repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to people with MS. This non-invasive treatment's purpose is to promote new brain cell generation and brain lesion healing.

"These crucial discoveries underpinned the research that I started with funding from an NHMRC Career Development Fellowship and also resulted in additional discoveries about mature cell structure, which have significant implications for diseases ranging from MS to Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy," Associate Professor Young explained.

In 2017, there were over 25,000 people in Australia affected by MS, making the disease the most prevalent neurological condition affecting young adults1.

Over the last decade, Associate Professor Young's basic scientific discoveries have not only paved the way for further research but also led to collaborative projects to learn more about these newborn brain cells. In 2011, when Associate Professor Young started her research group at the University of Tasmania, her research efforts were directed towards understanding the function of newborn cells in the mature brain and identifying treatments that could direct these new cells towards nervous system repair.

Associate Professor Kaylene Young.
Photo supplied by: The University of Tasmania

Associate Professor Young's team discovered that OPCs give rise to new cells that make myelin, the nerve cell insulation that is lost in MS. They found that the addition of new myelin and the remodeling of surviving myelin could influence the speed of information transfer in the nervous system.

'Having shown that new myelin could improve nerve cell function, we turned our attention to identifying the signals responsible. We found that OPCs responded to the electrical activity of nerve cells, and that we could use transcranial magnetic stimulation to increase the amount of new myelin," says Associate Professor Young.

Associate Professor Young's research has also contributed to MS education through the provision of content in 'Understanding MS', an open online course that was launched by the MS Research Flagship at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in 2019.

Next steps

Associate Professor Young and her team at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania are currently working to identify the cause of MS and develop new nervous system repair treatments to improve the lives of people with this disease.

'A significant obstacle to MS research is still our lack of knowledge about what causes MS. Ultimately that means that we lack a preclinical model that recapitulates all aspects of the disease, Associate Professor Young explained.

'We are now testing potential treatments in new preclinical models, including human stem cell lines generated from people with MS, so that more aspects of MS pathophysiology can be understood'.

1 H Ahmed, A Palmer, J Campbell, I van der Mei & B Taylor. "Health Economic Impact of Multiple Sclerosis in Australia in 2017" Multiple Sclerosis Research Australia. August 2018. Accessed 25 August 2021. https://msra.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/health-economic-impact-of-ms-in-australia-in-2017_ms-research-australia_web.pdf (PDF 2.6 MB)