New research: brain cell differences in people with MS

oligodendrocyte brain cells viewed through a microscope

Jan 2019: Our researchers have published findings using brain bank samples showing important differences in brain cells called oligodendrocytes in people with and without MS.

Anne Rowling Clinic academic and NHS honorary consultant Professor Anna Williams and her team, together with colleagues at the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden and healthcare company Hoffmann-La Roche, have published research findings that provide important clues towards new understanding of what happens in the brains of people with multiple sclerosis (MS).

The teams analysed post-mortem brain samples from five people without neurological disease, and four people with progressive MS. Each of these people had generously agreed to donate brain tissue to a 'brain bank' when they died, for use by researchers.

The study focused on cells in the brain that help to repair damage to nerve cells caused by the disease, called oligodendrocytes. The researchers identified for the first time that there are not just one, but many different types of these cells. Also they discovered that the proportions of each type of oligodendrocyte differ between people with MS and healthy people.

Using an advanced genetic analysis technique called single nuclear RNA-Seq, the scientists generated a snapshot of all the genes that were switched on in thousands of individual brain cells. In this way, they built a detailed picture of all the cell types that are present in the brain from that person.

These differences suggest the oligodendrocytes are functioning differently in the brains of people with MS, which might be key to understanding how disease progresses.

Oligodendrocytes are found in the brain and spinal cord where they repair damaged myelin. In people with MS, this process does not work as well as in healthy people. Many treatments under development for MS are designed to target oligodendrocytes in the hope of boosting myelin repair. These latest findings boost our understanding of this process and will help speed up the discovery of effective medicines.

This study would not have been possible without the far-sighted and generous donations to the brain bank. It illustrates the importance of donated brain tissue as an invaluable research resource.


Understanding which types of oligodendrocytes are most beneficial in repairing myelin will be crucial for maximising the chances of developing much-needed treatments for MS.

Professor Anna WilliamsMedical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine and Anne Rowling Clinic

The study, published in Nature, was funded by the UK MS Society, the European Union and the European Research Council. The European Committee for Treatment and Research of Multiple Sclerosis and the Wellcome Trust also funded the research, among others.

Related links

Professor Anna Williams profile

About multiple sclerosis

Find out more about brain banking

For scientists: read the article in Nature - Altered human oligodendrocyte heterogeneity in multiple sclerosis 

This article was published on: Thursday, January 24, 2019