Multiple Sclerosis and EBV: Relapsing Together
In a new study published on April 11, investigators in Italy found that, in patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), the immune response to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) appeared to cycle simultaneously with their disease activity, meaning that when the virus was active, so was their MS.
The study, conducted by investigators at the Santa Lucia Foundation in Rome, Italy examined cytotoxic (CD8+) T-cells, which are cells that kill infected or abnormal cells in the body. They found an increased response to the antigens produced by active EBV in the blood of MS patients during relapses, as compared with samples taken during periods of remission. Antigens are substances that the body sees as foreign or harmful—including toxins from viruses like Epstein-Barr—and deploys an immune response to find and kill.
EBV is a member of the herpesvirus family and, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nearly 95 percent of all people between the ages of 35 and 40 have been infected by it. EBV is responsible for the viral infection known as mononucleosis (or “mono”). EBV only results in mono in 35 to 50 percent of patients, while others never show any outward signs that they've been infected.
Although the symptoms of mono, which include a fever, sore throat, and swollen lymph glands, eventually go away, EBV takes up a permanent residence in certain cells in the immune system where it lies dormant for years.
For people who suffer from RRMS, the cycles of disease activity can be as varied and irregular as the symptoms they produce. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. The immune system attacks the myelin, or protective covering, of nerve cells in the brain, causing electrical “shorts” in the signaling pathways.
This can result in symptoms ranging from mild numbness to blindness or complete paralysis. In the relapsing-remitting form of MS, these attacks can last from a few days to several months. The flare-ups are followed by periods of remission where there is a lessening of disease activity.
More than 400,000 people have been diagnosed with MS in the United States, and more than 1.2 million worldwide. According to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, about 80 to 85 percent of MS patients are initially diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS.
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