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What is Multiple Sclerosis?


Multiple sclerosis (MS) is the most common neurological disorder diagnosed in young adults. Its causes are not yet fully understood and researchers continue to search for answers. MS is not contagious and does not shorten the life expectancy of those who are diagnosed with the disease. Although the disease may not be cured or prevented at this time, treatments are available to reduce severity and delay progression.

MS is a disease of the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS consists of the brain, optic nerves and spinal cord. This disorder damages the protective insulation (known as "myelin") surrounding the nerves (known as "axons"), and may also damage theses nerves within the CNS. As a result, nerve impulses carrying messages from the brain and spinal cord may short circuit, causing reduced or lost bodily function.

The effects of MS differ with each individual. Some people experience symptoms for a short period of time and afterward may remain symptom-free for periods or months or years. While others may experience a more steady progression of the disease.

Most researchers believe MS is an "autoimmune disease" -- one in which white blood cells, meant to fight infection or disease, are misguided to target and attack the body's own cells. This attack causes inflammation in the CNS, which may damage the myelin and ultimately injure the nerves.

Areas of inflammation are known as “lesions” or “plaques.” The changes in size, number, and location of these lesions may determine the type and severity of symptoms. Frequently, however, MS may be “clinically silent,” showing no increase in symptoms while continuing to show signs of disease activity within the CNS.

Additionally, areas of thick scar tissue may eventually form along the areas of damaged myelin. The term “multiple sclerosis” originates from the discovery of these hardened plaques. Multiple refers to many; sclerosis refers to scars.

Researchers have studied a variety of possible causes for MS, and a combination of factors appears to be involved. A popular theory looks at commonly known slow-acting viruses (one that could remain dormant for many years), such as measles, herpes, human T-cell lymphoma, and Epstein-Barr. After being exposed to one of these viruses, some researchers theorize that MS may develop in genetically susceptible people. Research to identify the specific genes involved in MS is also ongoing.

Some scientists are looking for a connection between MS and nutritional factors, including fat intake, as well as deficiencies in fish oil and vitamin D. In addition to food and supplements, vitamin D is also derived from sunlight, which may be involved in the development of MS. As noted in the following section, populations living closer to the equator (and exposed to more sunlight) experience a lower incidence of MS.









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