Powerful neuroimaging tools help UNM team advance multiple sclerosis research
When Donna Seagrave was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the early 1990s, there were no approved disease-modifying drugs for the condition.
But a lot has changed over the past two decades. Seagrave, who recently started a new medication that enabled her to walk for the first time in 15 years, is a believer in the value of the research. She's participating in a clinical study, led by the University of New Mexico's Dr. Corey Ford, who is using powerful neuroimaging technologies to better understand her disease and how to treat it more effectively.
“Research is the thing that’s going to help us stop MS in its tracks,” Seagrave says. “There used to be no hope for people with this disease. There are now 10 drugs that can treat it.”
Ford, a physician and researcher who has been studying and treating MS for more than two decades, says MS patients develop brain lesions that can cause memory loss, weakness and vision problems. “Usually, MS begins with ‘attacks’ of a symptom,” he says. “Then, over weeks or months, it gets better. If they don’t recover completely, they may be left with a disability that could accumulate over time.”
Seagrave says she experienced her first symptoms in 1991, with numbness in her right leg.
"But I wasn’t diagnosed until a year later when the right side of my body went to mush,” she says.
Ford and his team are able to better understand how MS modifies the brain over time and impacts brain function, thanks to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG).
“MRIs take pictures of the brain," Ford says. "MRIs show what parts of the brain are active when people perform tasks like tapping a finger. We know something about how the drugs work, but we want to develop new ways to improve their function or protect the nervous system from damage.”
In contrast, MEG allows researchers to see what the brain is doing in real time.
"The MEG shows where the brain is activated when a person is performing a specific task and the timing," Ford explains. "It will help us answer many questions like, when did some part of the brain turn on? When did it communicate? Is it slow? Is it abnormal?”
Ford is using these technologies in the discovery and evaluation of new therapies. Using the MEG, he says, will hopefully answer a lot of questions about MS and pave the way for new and better treatments.
Meanwhile, regaining the ability to walk has given Seagrave renewed optimism. “It was very exciting for me,” she says. “I always thought MS was a downhill trajectory. Instead, I’m improving. I can function better in my role as a wife, mother and grandmother. I think I’ll really have a future.”