New research finds that the brains of patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) lack a group of chemicals called neurosteroids which help brain cells repair themselves and do other important things. The researchers, led by Dr Chris Power, a neurologist who works at the MS clinic in the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton in Canada, hope their discovery will open the door to new treatments for the disease.

You can read about their work in the September issue of the journal Brain, which appeared online recently.

Power told the press this week that:

“Neurosteroids help brain cells to talk, grow, and repair themselves.”

“These steroids live in the brain. They are NOT the steroids most people associate with building big muscles or suppressing the immune system,” he added.

For their study, Power and colleagues screened thousands of genes, comparing those of people with MS with those of people without MS.

More specifically, they investigated the impact of small RNA molecules called micro-RNAs. These have received more attention recently, following the discovery that RNA, previously thought to be just a messenger that shuttles information between DNA and the proteins they code for, actually play a key role in how genes are expressed to produce proteins.

After this painstaking process, made possible thanks to high-throughput technologies, they found that genes of people with MS behave differently in that they result in lower levels of one specific neurosteroid, allopregnanolone.

Previous studies had already revealed that this neurosteroid is important for brain function, particularly for cell communication and repair.

The researchers also found that giving allopregnanolone to mice with MS reduced inflammation in the brain, and helped to stop the broken communication between brain cells.

“Allopregnanolone treatment of the experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis mouse model limited the associated neuropathology, including neuroinflammation, myelin and axonal injury and reduced neurobehavioral deficits (P < 0.05)," they write. “This is one of the few times in my career we have discovered a new scientific strategy that might directly benefit my patients,” said Power, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta and Canada Research Chair in Neurological Infection and Immunity. “Some neurosteroids are being tested in clinical trials for people with psychiatric disorders, and man-made neurosteroids are in clinical trials for people with epilepsy,” he added, explaining that he was already talking with work colleagues about setting up trials for MS.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD