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It takes an army of immune cells to defend the body against infection. But sometimes the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells and chronic inflammatory conditions develop. In multiple sclerosis – also known as “MS” – a horde of immune cells infiltrate the brain and spinal cord, forming lesions which strip nerve cells of their insultation, a protective fatty material called myelin. Nerve cells become damaged, scarred and exposed, and this interferes with messages between the brain and other parts of the body.
Advanced imaging techniques have revolutionized the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis by capturing lesions as they develop in the brain and spinal cord. Researchers have also focused their efforts on understanding how immune cells activated in the blood stream invade the central nervous system. To better understand how a mistaken immune response leads to nerve damage in multiple sclerosis, a forensic examination of which immune cells accumulate in brain tissue to form lesions is needed. Standard techniques for analyzing whole tissue samples are however limited by design, capable of detecting only a few cell markers in one section of tissue.
Ramaglia et al. have now validated a new imaging technique for looking at an array of cell types in brain tissue in a single sample. The technique – called imaging mass cytometry (or IMC for short) – was used to look at post-mortem brain tissue from a multiple sclerosis patient with an acute form of the illness. The tissue examined had multiple sclerosis lesions present. Different types of immune cells were simultaneously identified and characterized using a panel of antibodies which recognize the signature proteins each immune cell makes when active. The state of the underlying myelin content of the tissue was also characterized.
The imaging approach could distinguish between the immune cells of the brain (known as resident microglia) and a type of white blood cell summoned as part of the immune response (infiltrating macrophages). The analysis showed that, in the particular patient examined, microglia are abundant in active lesions in multiple sclerosis; also, different subsets of white blood cells were detected. Measuring how far different immune cells had migrated from nearby blood vessels added insights as to how immune cells move through the brain and which cells may have arrived first.
Altogether, Ramaglia et al. have shown that IMC can be used as a discovery tool to gain a deeper understanding of multiple sclerosis lesions and immune cells active in the inflamed brain. Further work will apply this now validated imaging approach to large cohorts of multiple sclerosis patients.