Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord that affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and least two to three times more women than men are diagnosed with the disease. Although the cause of MS is unknown, the disease is trigged by an unidentified environmental factor in a person who is genetically predisposed to respond. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS differ from person to person cannot yet be predicted.
Although the disease is not contagious or directly inherited, epidemiologists have identified factors in the distribution of MS around the world that may eventually help determine what causes the disease. These factors include gender, genetics, age, geography, and ethnic background. MS can be found among most ethnic groups, but is more common in Caucasians of northern European ancestry.
Signs and symptoms of MS vary widely and depend on the amount of nerve damage and which nerves are affected. Some people with severe MS may lose the ability to walk independently or at all, while others may experience long periods of remission without any new symptoms. Growing evidence suggests that vitamin D supports immune function and may help protect against immune-mediated diseases like MS.
Neurologist, Dr. Stephen Hauser from the University of California, San Francisco recently announced a new MS drug that is more effective than a standard treatment at reducing brain inflammation and lesions. Hauser led the trial, which was conducted at more than 200 centers worldwide in patients with the disease’s most common form, relapsing-remitting MS. The drug ocrelizumab reduced clinical MS attacks and blocked the development of new myelin inflammation by over 95 percent, and also delayed disability progression by 40 percent.
“The results were beyond spectacular,” says Hauser, who has been named inaugural director of the new UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “We are optimistic that with aggressive therapy that can be given safely at the beginning of the disease, the long-term outcomes, which are measured in decades, will be far superior to what they are today,” says Hauser. “These results should allow us to ask if shutting down brain inflammation at a very early stage in the disease might prevent late progressive MS altogether.”
The challenge of an MS diagnosis is that there is no single test for MS. The diagnosis can be missed, delayed, or even incorrect. Understanding what causes MS will help treat and—ultimately—cure those with the disease or even prevent it from occurring in the first place.