Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a characterized as an autoimmune disease – the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue. It is a chronic, disabling disease of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). The disease causes inflammation, destruction, and scarring of the sheath that covers nerve fibers, called myelin, in the brain and spinal cord. As a result, electrical signals from the brain are impaired and disrupt muscular activity throughout the body. The onset of this disease generally occurs between the ages of 20 and 40; women are twice as likely to develop MS as men.
In MS, the target of the immune system is the myelin that covers the axons of nerves (neurons) of the central and peripheral nervous system. Myelin is a complex substance made up of 80% lipid (fat) and 20% protein. One of the primary functions of myelin is to serve as insulation for the neurons. These neurons transmit signals from the central nervous system to the muscle; these signals are essentially electrical in nature. Without the proper insulation provided by the myelin, these signals degrade and impact muscular activity. Destruction and deterioration of the myelin has a dramatic and deleterious impact on the peripheral nervous system. The MS patient experiences periodic and acute episodes in which proper function of the muscles is impaired and can be crippling. These episodes eventually subside but generally leave behind some residual impairment. MS is a chronic disease whose cause is unknown and remains incurable; its impact can range from mild to severe. There are, however, some promising therapies that have been perfected to help with the symptoms and hopefully retard the disease’s progress. These approaches will be discussed in a subsequent article.
MS has been shown to be particularly prevalent in the northern latitudes; residents of the Pacific Northwest are particularly susceptible. The reason(s) for this phenomenon is poorly understood and is the subject of intense investigation. A possible explanation may relate to the climate and the fact that many of the inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest are from Northern Europe whose people have an increased susceptibility to the disease. In regards to the impact of climate on the prevalence of MS, there has been some evidence that the lack of Vitamin D, whose production in the human body is triggered by sunlight, may play a role.
MS is a disease that is under intense investigation. The hope remains that its cause and eventual cure will be discovered.