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Thursday, January 13, 2022

Common Epstein-Barr Virus May Play Role in Debilitating Neurological Illness

 In a study of members of the Armed Forces, people who developed multiple sclerosis first had Epstein-Barr virus.


A colored transmission electron micrograph of Epstein-Barr virus particles, a disease scientists suspect can cause multiple sclerosis.
Credit...CNRI/Science Source.


By Gina Kolata  --- Jan. 13, 2022

For decades, researchers have suspected that people infected with an exceedingly common virus, Epstein-Barr, might be more likely to develop multiple sclerosis, a neurological illness that affects a million people in the United States. Now, a team of researchers reports what some say is the most compelling evidence yet of a strong link between the two diseases.

The virus infects nearly everyone in their teen or young adult years, and very few go on to develop multiple sclerosis. The researchers also note that it is not the only known risk factor for people who develop the illness. But they say their data points to it being the clearest of them all. While it remains to be seen whether the finding will result in treatments or cures for multiple sclerosis, the study may further motivate research into therapies and vaccines for the condition.

In their study, published Thursday in Science, the group examined data from 10 million people on active duty in the United States Armed Forces over two decades. The strength of their study, said its principal investigator, Dr. Alberto Ascherio, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is that they were able to follow people for years and ask whether infections with Epstein-Barr preceded multiple sclerosis.

Among the service members in the study, 801 developed multiple sclerosis, a disabling disease that occurs when the immune system attacks the fatty insulation that protects nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Most who develop the disease are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. The disease is rare, though — an individual’s chance of getting multiple sclerosis is half of one percent.

At the same time, the virus in question, Epstein-Barr, is common, infecting nearly everyone in the population at some point. Although few are aware that they were infected, some develop mononucleosis. The virus remains in the body for life.

Because so few who are infected with the virus get multiple sclerosis, it cannot be the sole cause of the disease. Other risk factors have been identified, including some, like low levels of vitamin D and smoking, that were seen previously by the Harvard group using the same data set. There also are genetic factors — 900 abnormal genes have been identified in patients with multiple sclerosis, said Dr. Anthony J. Reder, a multiple sclerosis expert at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the new study.

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