Among the approaches the National MS Society is taking to find the cause and cure for MS is research into triggering or risk factors that influence whether a person develops the disease. Research of populations to study disease patterns, including variations in geography, demographics, socioeconomic status, genetics, environmental risk factors, and exposure to infectious agents, is called “epidemiology.” These studies provide vital information about relationships among these factors, so that we can better understand who gets MS and why, identify and explain areas with high or low rates of the disease, and assist in planning for health care and other services.
Finding a way to prevent MS will require understanding the genes that make people susceptible to developing the disease, and also identifying the environmental triggers so that those triggers can be avoided or otherwise de-railed so that MS is prevented from developing. The Society funds epidemiology studies to identify risk or protective factors, studies of how infection(s) might trigger MS. As we learn more about susceptibility genes, studies of how the immune system and genes interact with environmental factors to cause MS become more feasible.
Epidemiologic studies have given us some important clues about who develops MS:
- The disease affects more than twice as many women as men.
- It is most common among people with a northern European heritage, but people of other backgrounds develop the disease as well.
- MS appears to be more prevalent in temperate regions of the world than in the tropics.
- It is diagnosed most often in people between the ages of 20 and 50, although it also can develop quite early or quite late in life.
- Some possible risk factors that have been identified for MS include cigarette smoking and Epstein Barr virus.
- Some possible protective factors that have been identified for MS include intake of vitamin D and greater exposure to sunlight.
Epidemiological studies ultimately seek to discover the cause of MS, and may also serve as the basis for developing future treatments.
Many investigators believe that no single infectious agent or environmental factor is “the” cause of MS. Rather, they are exploring how a susceptible person’s immune system reacts to a variety of viral or other infections and environmental exposures, and how immune function is linked to hormonal and other factors.New research initiative
Read about studies funded by the Society:
- Women’s risk for developing clinically isolated syndrome, which often leads to multiple sclerosis, was shown to decrease with increased number of pregnancies in a comprehensive study undertaken in Australia. Although the results of this Ausimmune Study need to be confirmed, the findings encourage further exploration of potential treatments such as sex hormones, which may mimic pregnancy’s benefits in women with MS. Read more here.
- African Americans with MS have significantly lower levels of vitamin D than African Americans who do not have MS, but these levels are not linked to disease severity. Larger studies of diverse populations are necessary to fully understand the relationship of MS and vitamin D. Read more here.
- Researchers and clinicians from around the globe gathered to develop strategies for testing whether vitamin D supplements can prevent the development of MS. Participants discussed the latest findings relevant to vitamin D and MS and potential clinical trial designs, taking the first steps to making these exciting studies a reality. The meeting was funded by the National MS Society. Read more here.