Scientists Develop New X-Ray Method For Mapping Myelin Sheaths

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, including members from the Niels Bohr Institute have

recently developed a new X-ray method that allows for more highly detailed images of brain cells. The new X-ray method is able to map out the myelin sheaths in nerve cells, helping scientists get a better understanding of condition such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. The report on the new X-ray method has been published in the scientific journal, NeuroImage.

The myelin sheaths found in nerve cells act as the insulating material that allows the said cells to send out electric signals to and from the brain. The myelin sheaths ensure that communication between the neuronal axons remain stable and uninterrupted. Certain changes in the myelin sheaths are associated with a number of neurodegenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. Such diseases are not yet fully understood by many scientists

To help scientists better understand the connection between the changes in the myelin sheath and on a number of neurodegenerative diseases, a new type of creating highly detailed images of the myelin sheath may be required. This has recently been made possible by a new X-ray method called SAXS-CT. This method makes use of two existing and well-known medical examination methods to come up with highly detailed images of the myelin sheaths.

“We have combined two well-known medical examination methods: SAXS (Small-Angle X-ray Scattering) and CT-scanning (computed tomography scanning). Combined with a specially developed program for data processing, we have been able to examine the variations of the myelin sheaths in a rat brain all the way down to the molecular level without surgery,” says Torben Haugaard Jensen, PhD of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

The research needed for the development of the new X-ray method was made in collaboration with scientists and researchers from France, Germany and Switzerland. Experiments were made at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland where powerful X-ray source that can measure Small-Angle X-ray Scattering in high resolution was available. But such images usually come up with 2 dimensional renderings without information on depth. By incorporating the method used in CT scanning, the researchers were able to to get 3D X-ray images.

This new method will enable scientists to create images down to molecular levels. “We can see the myelin sheaths of the neuronal axons and we can distinguish the layers which have a thickness of 17.6 nanometers,” adds Jensen. “Up until now, you had to cut out a little sample in order to examine the layers in one area and get a single measuring point. With the new method we can examine 250,000 points at once without cutting into the sample. We can get a complete overview over the concentration and thickness of the myelin and this gives of the ability to determine whether the destruction of the myelin is occurring in spots or across the entire sample,” he further explains.

The said X-ray imaging method cannot be used on living persons. But such detailed images of the myelin sheaths taken from mice models may further help scientists better understand a number of neurodegenerative diseases and how it develops. The knowledge gained may further help researchers develop possible treatments for such diseases in the future.

Source: University of Copenhagen (2011, May 12). New X-ray method for understanding brain disorders better. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 24, 2011, from

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