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Research Update from ACTRIMS Forum

February 27, 2020

This year’s meeting of the Americas Committee for the Treatment and Research of MS (ACTRIMS Forum) in West Palm Beach, Florida got underway today. Here are a few highlights of Day 1 – follow the links provided below to read the scientific summaries (abstracts). Anyone can access all of the scientific abstracts given at ACTRIMS Forum 2020 here.
(Here are highlights from Day 2 and Day 3.)
The theme of ACTRIMS Forum this year is Networks. As explained by co-chair Dr. Tanuja Chitnis (Brigham and Women’s Hospital), this encompasses many aspects of MS research, like immune cell networks, brain connections, and even the social networks of people with MS. She pointed out research suggesting that people with MS do better when they maintain networks of friends and family.
Networks also are about collaborations. Before the official start of the conference, there was the first-ever joint symposium of two international collaborations: The North American Imaging in MS (NAIMS) Cooperative and the International Multiple Sclerosis Visual System (IMSVISUAL) Consortium. These researchers have broken down silos to learn from each other and to tackle difficult questions to overcome technical and knowledge roadblocks to advance solutions for people with MS. 

The official day started with the Kenneth Johnson Lecture by Dr. Peter Calabresi (Johns Hopkins University) who described some promising areas of research, including new understanding about the balance between protective and damaging functions of certain cells in the brain. He described the role of the complement system, an immune pathway involved in fighting infections, and the formation of nerve connections – synapses - and how this process is disrupted in MS. He also presented promising data on how damage to the retinal nerve might be used to predict disease progression.

Dr. Francisco Quintana (Brigham and Women’s Hospital) received the Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research and gave a talk about his work that is beginning to uncover pathways that may help explain how the gut microbiome, the environment, the immune system and the brain interact to cause MS disease activity. These interactions are uncovering possible approaches to stop the disease.

Another session today focused on “emerging concepts,” featuring cutting edge methods that may drive research progress. This session was designed to enable young investigators to present their teams’ results.

Here’s one example:
Depression can make MS worse: During her Society-funded Sylvia Lawry Fellowship at Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Jenny Feng examined clinical and imaging data from 2,427 people with relapsing MS who are enrolled in a real-world registry (MS-PATHS). Depression is common in MS, and more prevalent in people with relapsing MS than those with progressive forms. Over 12 months, people with depression showed more worsening in functions, relapses, and disease activity on MRI scans, compared with people who did not have depression. The results suggest that depression is not just a reaction to the stress of MS, but is tied to the disease process itself, and that people should be screened and treated for depression to possibly slow worsening. (Abstract)

Here are a couple of more than 150 studies on display at the first of two poster sessions, where researchers discuss their work with colleagues.

Telehealth to increase social networks: Since research has shown that people with stronger social networks do better coping with their MS, Dr. Victoria Leavitt and colleagues at Columbia University developed and tested two telehealth programs. One is an online support group to reduce loneliness; the other is an online partnering to encourage physical activity and increase accountability. Both programs were beneficial; the support group reducing loneliness, and the partnering program increased physical activity. These results add to others suggesting the value of telehealth programs to increase access to programs that can improve quality of life for people with MS. (Poster P068)

Teens with MS and Dieting: University of Virginia student Emma Woolbright and Dr. Nicholas Brenton did a survey about obesity and attitudes about diets involving 33 teens who have MS to see how much interest there might be in joining a diet study. Although two-thirds of the teens were overweight or obese, most of them did not consider themselves to be. No matter their body weight, most of the teens were interested in trying diets including low-salt, high carbohydrate, paleo, and ketogenic.
 (Poster P081)
Some people on oral therapies aren’t getting their lab tests: Dr. Helen Tremlett of the University of British Columbia and collaborators looked at health data related to people who were prescribed oral therapies that require regular blood and urine tests to ensure safety. The team found that most people got the tests before beginning the therapies, but then many didn’t keep up with the tests. These results should be a wake-up call to prescribers and to those taking the therapies, since the lab tests are often the first indicators that the therapy is causing adverse effects. (Poster P104)
Stay tuned for Day 2 highlights: microbiome, light therapy, and more.

About Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system. Currently there is no cure. Symptoms vary from person to person and may include disabling fatigue, mobility challenges, cognitive changes, and vision issues. An estimated 1 million people live with MS in the United States. Early diagnosis and treatment are critical to minimize disability. Significant progress is being made to achieve a world free of MS.

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