Saturday, January 18, 2014

Little Rays Of Hope

  You never know where little rays of hope are going to come from. I love discovering the uplifting little surprises that are out there, waiting to be found each day.

  Before my health became the crazy adventure that it is now, I took most of my pain-free days for granted... but not anymore. For the past few years I have lived every day in hopeful anticipation of the precious moments of peace and relief. I am so grateful for the support system I have now: proper medication, good doctors, a loving family, dear friends, and kind neighbors. But ironically, sometimes the moments of greatest relief are also the moments of greatest emotional torture.

Allow me to explain...

  Sometimes I find myself laying on the couch in too much pain to move, waiting for my meds to kick in. Then as the feeling of relief finally washes over me, something wonderful and sad happens:

Wonderful-- because I am genuinely grateful for every ounce
of peace and comfort that I am blessed with.

Sad-- because of the stark contrast between my "normal" and
suddenly bring reminded what it feels like to be pain free.

  It's hard to hold back the tears sometimes, as I sit there thinking to myself: "Oh man, I think I was actually starting to forget what it's like to feel good..." That is a harsh realization to accept. It's times like that when we have a chance to learn the importance of the little things: the beauty of the small victories, and the profound value of the seemingly mundane struggles.

And once in a while, a glimmer of hope breaks through the clouds...

  Yesterday the National MS Society published an interview with Dr. Ben Barres, Professor and Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford University's School of Medicine. Dr. Barres and his team are doing some amazing research in the area of nervous system repair:
  "My lab is focused on understanding the role of glial cells in the brain. There are two different types of glial cells: oligodendrocytes and astrocytes. Many of you may have learned that oligodendrocytes cover the nerve fibers with myelin, which is damaged by MS. But the astrocytes, in particular, are a very mysterious class of brain cell. Making up about 40% of cells in the brain, they’re large cells that each ensheath (or cover) thousands of synapses (points of contact through which a signal is transferred from one neuron to the next)."

  "The questions we’re asking in my lab are: What do the astrocytes do normally? And what do they do in diseases like MS? This has been one of the longstanding mysteries in neurobiology. Up until this point, we haven’t known what nearly half of our cells in our brain do. We know that neurons form the neural circuits, but what is the role of astrocytes in this process?"

  "When I started working on this 20 years ago, everyone thought astrocytes were just passive support cells that were cleaning up after the neurons. What we know now is that not only are astrocytes controlling synapse formation, but they also control the strength of synapses once they’re formed and the elimination of synapses. And we think that by better understanding astrocytes, we’re going to learn much more about how synapses work and how to rebuild synapses after injury."

  So instead of existing treatments which attempt to slow the demyelination process and/or suppress your immune system (scary), this new approach would have the body actually heal itself of the damage caused by neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis. A breakthrough like that could give millions of people their life back... it could resurrect broken dreams.

Dr.Barres continues:
  "In neurodegenerative diseases, including MS, newer studies have shown that in addition to white matter damage (demyelination) there is also grey matter damage, neuron cell bodies and synapses are actually degenerating as well. Initially the brain has the ability to rebuild myelin, and also lost synapses, but as the disease progresses the pace at which synapses degenerate may outpace the brain’s ability to repair lost synapses. At a certain point, some individuals move into the neurodegenerative phase, also known as secondary-progressive MS."

  "At this phase, axons degenerate – in part because they’re losing their myelin. But scientists are now realizing that synapses are also being lost at this time. And quite possibly these two processes are connected. If this is the case, we need medications that will not only rebuild myelin, but also prevent the loss of synapses or stimulate reformation of synapses. Therapies that block synapse loss may also block axon loss and help to promote remyelination. Our hope is that rebuilding synapses will rebuild the circuit and allow normal function of that circuit."

  We are SO blessed to live in a time when science is advancing by leaps and bounds. In many ways, mankind has made more progress in the last two hundred years than the previous two thousand. There is so much we still don't know, but that's okay because when we begin realizing how much we don't know-- that is when we are more likely to start asking the right questions.

  So anyway- I am excited for research like this to find new options for those who suffer through never-ending, unseen battles. And even if those answers don't happen in my lifetime, I hope the rest of the human race will be able to benefit from the work of these unsung heroes of science and medicine; brilliant minds who dedicate their life to finding answers for all of us.

  And those answers are worth the wait, because every ray of light matters... especially when you are fighting a foe that never takes a day off.

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