SCIENTISTS have identified cells key to motor neurone disease (MND) and hope the research breakthrough brings a cure a step closer.

There is currently no known cure for the degenerative condition, which causes signals from motor neurone nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord needed to control movement to gradually stop reaching the muscles.

Researchers used stem cell technology to identify a type of cell that can cause motor neurones to fail. Using stem cells from patient skin samples, they found glial cells, which normally support neurones in the brain and spinal cord, become damaging to motor neurones in the patients with the condition.

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By testing different combinations of glial cells and motor neurones grown together in the lab, researchers found glial cells from MND patients can cause motor neurones in healthy people to stop producing the electrical signals needed to control muscles.

The research was carried out by scientists at St Andrews and Edinburgh universities. 

Professor Gareth Miles, an expert in neuroscience at University of St Andrews, said: “We are very excited by these new findings, which clearly point the finger at glial cells as key players in this devastating disease.

“Interestingly, the negative influence of glial cells seems to prevent motor neurones from fulfilling their normal roles, even before the motor neurones show signs of dying. We hope that this new information highlights targets for the development of much-needed treatments and ultimately a cure for MND.”

The joint research, funded by the Motor Neurone Disease Association, MND Scotland and the Medical Research Council and Dementia Research Institute, Edinburgh, was published in the scientific journal Glia.

MND is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that leads to paralysis because it attacks motor neurones, a special type of nerve cell in the brain and spinal cord that generates the electrical signals needed to control all of our movements. 

Research on the prevalence of MND in Scotland, published in March this year, confirmed that around 200 new cases are confirmed every year and there are approximately 400 people living with the disease in Scotland at any one time. It can be diagnosed at any age, but the average age of onset is 65.

Rates of the disease in Scotland are higher than in any other European country and 66 per cent higher than the average for Northern European populations, although the reasons are unclear. 

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No link to social deprivation has been found, and research is continuing into possible genetic factors or potential environmental causes such as exposure to viruses, toxins and chemicals. 

Incidence, adjusted for age to take into account the older popular, has also been shown to have climbed by around 36 per cent in the past 20 years although much of this increase is believed to be down to better diagnosis and recording. 

The latest research comes after former Scotland rugby star and MND sufferer Doddie Weir was recognised on Sunday with the Helen Rollason Award at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year for his work fundraising for research into the condition. 

Physicist Stephen Hawking was one of the world’s most famous MND sufferers until his death in 2018. He was diagnosed aged 21 but defied the odds to survive another 55 years.