What causes MS?
Newly diagnosed people find this the most frustrating and problematic question about MS. Neurologists and other healthcare providers consider it just as difficult having to tell someone that there is no known cause or cure yet.
Needless to say, the race to understand what causes MS is ongoing, and this will eventually lead to more effective treatments and hopefully, cure and prevention.
In MS, the central nervous system – the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves – is affected. Nerve cells in the brain send signals throughout the body to control everything that happens, like movement, sensation, memory, cognition, and speech.
These nerve cells communicate by sending electrical messages via nerve fibres. Much like the white protective coating around a telephone cable, the myelin sheath protects the nerve fibres. The sheath itself consists of a fatty substance and helps signals travel fast and effortlessly between the brain and the rest of the body. In MS, however, the nerve may become damaged.
MS is an autoimmune condition, which means that immune cells which usually help fight off infections, mistakenly attack and damage its own tissues, in this case, the myelin sheath. Attacks like this lead to all kinds of disruption of nerve cell transmission between the brain and spinal cord and other parts of the body.
The attacks cause the myelin sheath to become inflamed in small patches (plaques or lesions), which are visible on an MRI scan. Scarring or damage of the myelin sheath is called demyelination.
As complex an illness as MS is, as varied are the many symptoms and their severity associated with it, leading to the much-used phrase “No two people with MS are alike.” It affects everyone differently across the different types of MS.
Another issue many people with MS struggle with is whether they did something wrong that contributed to being diagnosed. The answer is, “No, it is not caused by anything you did.” Scientists are trying to find out what triggers the immune system to attack itself. A possible theory is the interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Researchers put a lot of time and effort into delving deep into the science of the immune system, the study of disease patterns in the population and genetics.
These factors may increase the risk of developing multiple sclerosis:
- MS can occur at any age, but most commonly affects people between the ages of 15 and 60.
- Women are about twice as likely as men are to develop MS.
- Family history. According to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, if one parent has MS, the risk of their children getting the disease is estimated to be between 2 and 5 per cent. Several genes are believed to play a role in MS. Some researchers theorise that MS develops because a person is born with a genetic predisposition to react to some environmental agent that, upon exposure, triggers an immune-mediated response.
- Certain autoimmune diseases. There is a slightly higher risk of developing MS if someone has thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes or inflammatory bowel disease.
- Certain infections. No single virus has been identified as positively contributing to MS, but there is growing evidence that a common childhood virus, such as Epstein-Barr virus (which can cause glandular fever), may act as a trigger. This theory is still unproven, and many people who do not have MS would have also been exposed to these viruses, so just like genes, they are unlikely to be the whole story.
- Race. White people, particularly those of Northern European descent, are at highest risk of developing MS. People of Asian, African or Native American descent have the lowest risk.
- Climate. Epidemiologists have seen an increased pattern of MS cases in countries located farthest from the equator. This correlation causes some to believe that vitamin D benefits the function of the immune system. The longer skin is exposed to sunlight, the more your body naturally produces the vitamin.
- Smoking. Studies have shown that smoking increases a person’s risk of developing MS and is associated with more severe disease and more rapid disease progression. Fortunately, the evidence also suggests that stopping smoking — whether before or after the onset of MS — is associated with a slower progression of disability.
© Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me, 2011-2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner are strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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