Skip to main content

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Mylenated neuron
Mylenated neuron
Photo - Trinity College

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a mysterious, often debilitating  condition that currently affects over 400,000 Americans.   With the exception of head trauma, MS is the most common cause of  neurological impairment in young adults.  90% of those diagnosed with MS are under the age of 60 - most between the ages of 20 and 40.

In Multiple Sclerosis, myelin, the  fatty substance that protects and insulates nerve fibers, develops scarring and lesions, interfering with efficient transmission of nerve signals from the brain and spinal cord, to other body parts.  This interference may result in numbness and tingling in hands and feet, .difficulty walking, lack of coordination, hand tremors,  intolerance of heat, blurred vision, trouble thinking clearly or remembering things, extreme fatigue, difficulty swallowing - there are literally hundreds of possible symptoms of MS, depending upon which nerve fibers are affected. 

Scientists do not know the exact nature of Multiple Sclerosis, but they believe it may be an auto-immune disease, where the immune system attacks the body as if it were a foreign invader.   In the case of Multiple Sclerosis, the body's immune system damages or destroys the protective myelin sheath.

The scientific community is not yet certain if MS is caused by genetic factors.  For example, the risk of developing MS within the same family is approximately 20%, but this could be due to family members residing in the same area, where certain environmental factors might be a cause.  Therefore, environment is also being considered as a contributing factor.  Viruses such as Epstein-Barr; certain vaccines, and chronic stress have been, or are being investigated as to their relationship in developing MS.   The occurrence of MS appears to be greater among Caucasians  who live  in temperate climates far from the equator. Multiple Sclerosis is a rare diagnosis in Japan, China or South America.  One theory held that lack of sunlight and vitamin D contributed to the development of MS, however Native Inuits in Alaska and the Lapp people of Scandinavia are almost never diagnosed with MS, and they live in low light conditions for months at a time.  

At present, science has many more questions than answers regarding the cause, prevention, and cure for Multiple Sclerosis.