Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disabling disease of the central nervous system in which the immune system attacks the myelin sheath—a layer of fatty tissue and protein that protects nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord—causing communication problems between the brain and body. Eventually, this can cause nerve damage, resulting in a whole host of phantom pains and sensations.
Historically, MS has been a condition that’s shrouded in mystery and often met with dismissal or disbelief, but experts are now learning more about the disease. In fact, Harvard researchers have confirmed one underlying cause for MS. If you’ve done this one thing, they say your odds of developing the inflammatory condition are 32 times higher than if you haven’t. Read on to find out what experts now say may in fact be the leading causes of MS, and how you can protect yourself against developing the condition.
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Medical experts have long sought to understand the mechanics behind multiple sclerosis, which currently affects an estimated 2.8 million people worldwide. This week, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have published new findings in the journal Science stating that the majority of MS cases are associated with prior infection of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
“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,” Alberto Ascherio, MD, DrPH, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study, said via press release. “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.”
Establishing causation between Epstein-Barr virus and MS was particularly difficult, especially given that EBV is extremely common, while MS remains relatively rare. To further complicate matters, the onset of MS symptoms typically begin roughly 10 years following an EBV infection, obscuring a direct connection.
To probe the relationship between the two illnesses, the Harvard team studied more than 10 million young adults in the U.S. military, including 955 who were diagnosed with MS while serving in active duty. After analyzing serum samples taken periodically by the military, the team determined each subject’s EBV status at time of their first sample and tracked the relationship between EBV and MS in those who developed symptoms while serving.
Their findings were stark. “The risk of MS increased 32-fold after infection with EBV but was unchanged after infection with other viruses,” the team shared. “Serum levels of neurofilament light chain, a biomarker of the nerve degeneration typical in MS, increased only after EBV infection. The findings cannot be explained by any known risk factor for MS and suggest EBV as the leading cause of MS,” they add.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Epstein-Barr virus is a member of the herpes virus family, and is also known as human herpesvirus 4. It’s considered extremely common, the health authority points out: Most people will experience an EBV infection at some point in their lives, most frequently during childhood when you’re less likely to develop symptoms. The health authority estimates that between 90 and 95 percent of adults have antibodies indicating a current or past EBV infection.
Symptoms of EBV—should they appear at all—most frequently include fatigue, fever, inflamed throat, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, enlarged spleen, swollen liver, or skin rash. Following an EBV infection, the virus becomes inactive in your body, but remains latent in the B memory cells. In those with weakened immune systems, the virus may later reactivate, explains the CDC.
Epstein-Barr infects others through bodily fluids, most often via saliva. “EBV can be spread by using objects, such as a toothbrush or drinking glass, that an infected person recently used. The virus probably survives on an object at least as long as the object remains moist,” says the CDC.
For this reason, the health authority suggests that you may be able to protect yourself “by not kissing or sharing drinks, food, or personal items, like toothbrushes, with people who have EBV infection.” EBV is also known to be the most common cause of infectious mononucleosis (colloquially known as “mono”), so you should take these precautions if you or someone you know has a known case of the virus.
However, the researchers behind the Harvard study were less optimistic about your odds of intentionally avoiding EBV, instead focusing on the bigger picture opportunities that their findings may create. “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. Thanks to their breakthrough, debilitating multiple sclerosis cases may someday become a thing of the past.