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Veterinary Forum April 2009 (Vol 26, No 4)

Cat study leads to MS discovery

by Kirk Gelatt, Craig E. Griffin, DVM, DACVD

    MADISON, Wis. — Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studied the neurologic effects of an irradiated cat diet discovered that the restoration of myelin — a fatty nerve fiber insulator that degrades in many human disorders, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) — can help the central nervous system (CNS) repair itself and restore neurologic function.

    "The study proves unequivocally that extensive remyelination can lead to recovery from a severe neurologic disorder," said Ian Duncan, BVMS, PhD, the neuroscientist who led the research. "It indicates the profound ability of the central nervous system to repair itself."

    The finding is important because it underscores the validity of strategies to reestablish myelin as a therapy for treating a range of severe neurologic diseases in which there is loss or damage of myelin but the nerves remain intact.

    The new study was funded after a company that tested the effects on growth and development in cats using irradiated food reported that some pregnant cats developed severe neurologic dysfunction, including movement disorders, vision loss and paralysis. When taken off the diet, the cats recovered slowly, and eventually all lost functions were restored.

    "After being on the diet for 3 to 4 months, the pregnant cats started to develop progressive neurologic disease," said Duncan, a professor of medical sciences at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and an authority on demyelinating diseases. "Cats put back on a normal diet recovered. It's a very puzzling demyelinating disease."

    The afflicted cats were shown to have severe and widely distributed demyelination of the CNS, according to Duncan. In addition, although the neurologic signs exhibited by cats are similar to those experienced by humans with demyelination disorders, the malady does not seem to be like any of the known myelin-related diseases of humans.

    Although the restored myelin sheaths were not as thick as healthy myelin, Duncan noted that from a physiologic standpoint, the thin myelin membrane restores function and is doing what it is supposed to do.

    Knowing that the CNS retains the ability to forge new myelin sheaths anywhere the nerves are preserved provides strong support for the idea that if myelin can be restored in such diseases as MS, it may be possible for patients to regain lost or impaired functions: "The key thing is that it absolutely confirms the notion that remyelinating strategies are clinically important," Duncan said.

    The exact cause of the neurologic affliction in the cats on the experimental diet is unknown, added Duncan, who was not involved in the original diet study.

    "We think it is extremely unlikely that [irradiated food] could become a human health problem," Duncan explained. "We think it is species specific. It's important to note that these cats were fed a diet of irradiated food for a time."

    The study was published in the March 30 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    NEXT: Clinical Report — Increasing the comfort zone for handling neonates

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