Intestinal flora may be the key to understanding how multiple sclerosis develops. Previous assumptions held that MS was a mostly genetic problem, prompting physicians to closely examine DNA. New research, however, has shown that autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, are brought about by a combination of environmental and genetic factors, the catalyst of which could be the balance of the gut microbiome. Should this be further verified, it could help neuroimmunologists design better treatment plans for MS patients and more importantly, craft simple and more natural preventive plans.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that attacks the central nervous system. T-cells, which are a sub-type of white blood cells, begin damaging the nerve cells, destroying the sheath that surrounds these cells. As these cells die, nerve impulses can no longer transmit correctly. Patients diagnosed with the condition experience general muscle weakness, numbness, problems with memory, visual disturbances, and difficulties in balance. Those diagnosed with more severe cases of the illness are often placed in a nursing facility as they can no longer independently function. There is currently no cure for the condition.
Scientists hypothesize that every person’s T-cells have the potential to exhibit aberrant behavior, but genetic vulnerability does not dictate disease manifestation. Hertie Professor and Emeritus Director at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Professor Harmut Wekerle explains that “more than 200 genes that increase susceptibility to MS have now been identified, but for MS to develop, there must be a trigger.”
This trigger is suspected to be the natural intestinal flora.
To prove this theory, researchers from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg and the Universities of California (San Francisco) and Münster, observed 50 pairs of identical German twins, one of whom had MS while the other did not. This, the researchers said, would eliminate any genetic variability in their study. Cross-analysis of different factors showed subtle, but incredibly distinct, differences between the twins. The most intriguing was the gut microbiome profile.
“Where things got really interesting, however, is when we inoculated the genetically modified mice, which had been raised in sterile conditions, with the human microbiota,” said Guru Krishnamoorthy, a neuroimmunologist at the Max Planck Institute. The team saw that mice exposed to the intestinal flora of patients with MS developed MS-like brain lesions.
By observing animal models, the scientists say that they eliminated any confounding factors that may be inferred in human experiments (such as individual eating habits, etc.) These results clarify the relationship between intestinal flora and T-cell activation.
The research team was quick to note that finally grasping this concept does not imply a cure for the disease. More studies need to be conducted to develop any new diagnostic procedure or treatment. All the same, this study does highlight the importance of following a healthy lifestyle, especially in keeping a balanced gut microbiome.
A brief look at multiple sclerosis
- Women are two to three times more likely to develop multiple sclerosis and have a relapse.
- Multiple sclerosis can affect anyone of any age.
- The average age for MS symptoms to first appear is between the ages of 30 to 35.
- The condition is more common among Caucasians and among those of Northern or Central European descent.
- It is estimated that there are around 200 new cases per week of MS being diagnosed in the U.S.