Story at a glance
- Multiple Sclerosis is a degenerative neurological disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the fibers and myelin covering of the brain and spinal cord.
- A rare illness, the disease effects just over a million people in the United States.
- Researchers at Harvard T Chan School of Public Health believe their findings have pinpointed the Epstein-Barr virus as the cause of the disease.
Researchers have found evidence that suggests the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes a number of illnesses including mononucleosis, might also trigger Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic disease where a person’s immune system attacks the fibers and myelin sheath around the brain and spinal cord. About 1 million people in the United States are estimated to have the disease, according to the most recent data from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Some with MS may only ever develop mild symptoms of the disease while others may lose the ability to walk or speak. What triggers the body’s immune system to attack itself has stumped scientists.
A team of researchers have found evidence that what causes the unnatural immune response is an infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, according to a study published in Science.
“The hypothesis that EBV causes MS has been investigated by our group and others for several years, but this is the first study providing compelling evidence of causality,” said lead author of the study Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Chan School, in a statement. “This is a big step because it suggests that most MS cases could be prevented by stopping EBV infection, and that targeting EBV could lead to the discovery of a cure for MS.”
In order to come to this conclusion, researchers conducted a study on more than 10 million adults on active duty in the United States military and found 955 that had been diagnosed with MS during service.
The team analyzed serum samples by the military to determine whether each solider had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, which is present in about 95 percent of all adults, and then compared those findings to the whether they had been diagnosed with MS during their time of active duty.
Researchers found that the risk of MS increased 32-fold if a soldier had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus and remained unchanged if they had been infected with another virus.
In addition, biomarkers of the nerve degeneration that occurs in MS increased in soldiers who had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus helping lead researchers to believe the virus as the leading cause of MS.
“Currently there is no way to effectively prevent or treat EBV infection, but an EBV vaccine or targeting the virus with EBV-specific antiviral drugs could ultimately prevent or cure MS,” said Ascherio.
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