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Researchers Identify Cell That Causes Brain Shrinkage in Multiple Sclerosis

Laura Joszt
The brain shrinkage that occurs in patients with multiple sclerosis may be the result of a specific brain cell: When projection neurons are damaged, the brain shrinks.
A specific brain cell plays a central role in changes seen in the brain in multiple sclerosis (MS), according to new research published in Nature.

Researchers identified that the brain shrinkage that occurs in MS could be a result of when cells known as projection neurons are damaged by the body’s immune cells. Until now, the processes driving cortical shrinkage have been unclear. These findings could provide a target for new therapies to treat damaged brain cells.

The investigators compared an analysis of postmortem human brain samples from patients with MS with brain samples donated from people who did not have MS. They studied a wide range of cell types implicated in the disease and used single-nucleus RNA sequencing to study the genetic make-up of brain cells. According to Lucas Schirmer, MD, lead scientist on the project from the University of Heidelberg, this process helped them understand why some cells might be more susceptible to damage from MS.

“We found that antibody-producing immune cells are related to the damage of the important projection neurons in MS brains,” David Rowitch, MD, PhD, professor and head of pediatrics at the University of Cambridge and the senior scientist coordinating the research, said in a statement. “This suggests that cell therapies targeting these immune cells could protect projection neurons and provide a novel treatment for progressive MS.”

In healthy people, projection neurons help communicate information between areas in the brain, and damage to these cells could affect cognitive abilities in patients with MS. The more cells that are damaged, the more the brain shrinks because it takes up less space.

“These new techniques have wide applicability in the understanding of human neurodevelopmental and neurological disorders and are providing new insight into not only MS, but also autism spectrum disorder,” said coauthor Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and director of the Development and Stem Cell Biology Program at the University of California, San Francisco.


Schirmer L, Velmeshev D, Holmqvist S, et al. Neuronal vulnerability and multilineage diversity in multiple sclerosis [published online July 17, 2019]. Nature. doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1404-z.

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