Understanding Tissue Damage - National Multiple Sclerosis Society

Skip to navigation Skip to content

Understanding Tissue Damage

Understanding the processes that lead to tissue damage in MS is crucial to our focus on reversing this damage to regain function through nervous system and myelin repair.


In this article


We pursue all promising paths to uncover solutions for EVERYONE with MS, wherever those opportunities exist, while focusing on three priority areas, including progressive MS – bringing answers and solutions where none exist today; and nervous system repair – reversing damage to regain function through nervous system and myelin repair.

Understanding the processes that lead to tissue damage in MS is crucial to these priorities. The immune attack in MS unleashes a cascade of events that damage the wire-like arms of nerve cells (axons) and the insulating tissue (myelin) that wraps around axons, disrupting nerve signal transmission.

Driving solutions

Research focusing on understanding the extent and causes of damage to the nervous system in MS is driving progress that will help us find ways to protect the brain and stop disease progression. Current research approaches funded by the Society's research programs include:
  • Investigating whether debris from damage caused by the immune attack causes further damage to nerve cells during the course of MS.
  • Exploring how alterations in the myelin coating after immune attacks affect the health and behavior of nerve fibers.
  • Identifying processes that contribute to the loss of myelin and ways to restore myelin to protect nerves and their function.
  • Seeking ways to diagnose MS earlier to enable earliest treatment as the best insurance against future damage.
  • Developing high-powered imaging as a window to seeing how MS causes damage and as a tool for tracking the success of treatments.
Past Success
The MS Lesion Project was a major collaboration of investigators worldwide who sought to understand the damage MS does to the nervous system and ultimately improve its treatment. This large-scale project was funded through the Society’s Promise: 2010 Initiative.

investigators sought to understand patterns of MS damage in lesions—spots of brain tissue where myelin has been stripped from nerve fibers. Claudia F. Lucchinetti, MD, with collaborators in the U.S., Germany and Austria, launched the most extensive attempt ever to map and understand the meaning of MS damage in the brain. They amassed an unprecedented collection of tissue samples from more than 1,000 people with MS, obtained from brain biopsies (a rare procedure) or autopsies. By identifying four distinct kinds of lesion patterns, the collaborators: 
  • changed the way researchers think about MS
  • discovered that unique antibody patterns are associated with different lesion patterns, which could lead to a blood test to help inform treatment decisions
  • made significant gains in understanding when lesions form and how tissue is damaged, opening up new possibilities for strategies to stop that damage
An additional grant from the National Institutes of Health is making it possible for these investigators to continue making discoveries about tissue damage in MS that may ultimately drive treatment decisions.

We are making progress

Society-supported researchers recently reported on a possible mechanism for MS damage to nerve tissue in mice with an MS-like disease.
  • The University of California, San Francisco researchers found evidence that a blood-clotting protein called fibrinogen may play an early role in triggering inflammation that damages nerve fibers in a mouse model of MS.
  • The team used novel technology that uses fluorescence to provide vivid, real-time detail of living tissue in action.
  • The results point to a crucial role for fibrinogen in stimulating inflammation by cells called microglia, leading to nervous system damage.
  • If these early studies are confirmed, targeting the interaction of fibrinogen and microglia may prove to be a novel strategy for stopping MS damage in its tracks. Read more
Recent study suggested that the eyes offer a unique window to MS damage and repair.
  • A team of researchers funded by the Society scanned the eyes of a group of people with MS over nearly two years, and also did MRI scans and regular clinical exams.
  • The researchers, from Johns Hopkins University and other institutions across the country, found that thinning of the back layer of the eye may represent a window to global damage occurring in the nervous system
  • The results suggest that this tool may be useful for tracking nerve protection in clinical trials involving people with MS.  Read more