What are we trying to do?
Here at Oxford we are trying to find out more about the causes of MS and other neurodegenerative diseases. People probably get these diseases due to a mix of genes, environmental and lifestyle factors and identifying these factors can help us develop new treatments. We are getting closer to understanding the causes of MS, but it’s a long and complex journey that needs hundreds of scientists to keep chipping away at the problem.
The new centre that will help with this mammoth task is called the Oxford Centre for Neuroinflammation (OCNI). It’s funded by the OAK Foundation and based in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford, which is located in the John Radcliffe Hospital. The best bit is that the scientists are working right alongside the medics, so anything they find out could soon be used to develop new treatments.
The scientist in charge is called Professor Lars Fugger. He’s interested in neuroinflammation, which is when the nervous tissue becomes inflamed as it tries to defend the central nervous system against harm. This happens in MS, as well as in some other conditions.
The team is using cutting-edge scientific approaches as well as information from hundreds of thousands of patients to answer four main questions:
How to use genetic information to help make diagnosis easier
How environmental factors relate to the disease
How to predict whether a drug is going to work well or not
Whether drugs that are already being used for other things can be re-purposed to treat MS
They aim to develop treatments which will mean that patients worldwide can live active and fulfilling lives.
Public engagement events
Here at the OCNI we know that great science also needs great communication which is why we have been involved in lots of public engagement activities like our recent trip Super Science Saturday Brain Diaries exhibit. Organised by the Oxford Museum of Natural History in partnership with Oxford Neuroscience the aim was to show the public how the latest neuroscientific research is transforming what we understand about our brain – from birth to the end of life. Our display on Multiple Sclerosis was designed to teach children and young teenagers a bit about MS in a fun and accessible way.
Multiple Sclerosis occurs when the immune system attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to symptoms such as difficulties with movement and balance, weakness, fatigue and vision problems. The range of symptoms an individual experiences depend on what part of the brain and spinal cord is damaged by the attack. In order to explain how these damaging immune cells can lead to the symptoms of MS, we encouraged children to colour in and name a neuron and then attach it to our poster of the brain. Depending on what area of the brain they put it on, we would then tell them what body processes that part of the brain is involved in and what symptoms a person with MS would experience if their immune cells attacked that area.
Children were constantly gathered around the colouring table with their parents and within only an hour our poster was already half covered with multi-coloured neurones. We found that this was a brilliant opportunity to tell young children some simple science about how their brain works, while discussing MS and our research in greater detail with the adults. Another section of our exhibit, targeted at older children, included information sheets and a short quiz about how to use a microscope to study brain sections and investigate what happens in an MS-affected brain.
As well as revealing one way that scientists can investigate and understand this disease, this allowed visitors to see what actually happens to the brain when immune cells attack it and how symptoms arise. The most challenging part of our stand was to take apart and piece back together a miniature brain model – an activity we included to explain to older children and adults about the brain in general (for those who found the idea of colouring in a neuron less appealing!). A few people were up for the challenge, and it gave us an opportunity to interact with interested members of the public about the function of different brain structures – the lobes, the cerebellum, brain stem, corpus callosum…For me the challenge was to think back to my undergraduate modules in neuroscience!
By the end of the afternoon our poster was overflowing with neurons (they were no longer confined to the brain…). We had talked to hundreds of people of all ages, including a small group of lovely young women with MS, who came all the way from London to visit our exhibit – we felt truly privileged! We handed out many word searches and quizzes on MS for children to take home and hundreds of stickers showing an MRI image of the brain with a lesion (part of the brain affected by MS). After all, it’s always nice to have a scientific souvenir to remember the event, and maybe even inspire a bit of homework!