Home » Health » The Epstein-Barr virus could be the main cause of multiple sclerosis | Science and Ecology | D.W.

The Epstein-Barr virus could be the main cause of multiple sclerosis | Science and Ecology | D.W.


Multiple sclerosis (MS), a progressive disease for which there is no definitive cure, “is probably” caused by infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes mononucleosis, according to a large 20-year study published on Thursday (01.14.2022) by the journal Science.

The Harvard University-led research followed more than 10 million US military recruits and identified 955 who were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during their tour of duty.

The hypothesis that EBV causes multiple sclerosis has been analyzed by various scientific groups for several years, but “this is the first study that provides convincing evidence of causality,” according to the lead author of the research, Alberto Ascherio, from the Escuela TH Chan Professor of Public Health at Harvard.

Rare disease affecting the central nervous system

The scientist considered that this is “a big step, because it suggests that the majority” of MS cases “could be prevented by stopping the infection” by the virus that causes mononucleosis, known as kissing disease, and that having EBV as a goal “could lead to the discovery of a cure for MS”.

MS, which affects 2.8 million people worldwide, is a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that attacks the myelin sheaths that protect neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Although its cause is unknown, one of the main suspects is EBV, a herpes virus that can cause infectious mononucleosis and establishes a latent, lifelong infection in the host.

Causal relationships between EBV and MS

Establishing a causal relationship between the virus and the disease “has been difficult” because EBV infects approximately 95% of adults, while MS is relatively rare and the onset of symptoms begins about ten years after infection.

To determine the connection between the two, the researchers analyzed serum samples taken every two years from the military. In this way, they determined the EBV status of the soldiers at the time of the first sample and the relationship between EBV infection and the appearance of MS during the period of active duty.

The team found that “the risk of MS increased 32-fold after EBV infection, but did not change after infection with other viruses,” the note said. Also, serum levels of neurofilament light chain, a biomarker of nerve degeneration typical of MS, only increased after infection.

These results, according to the research team, “cannot be explained by any known risk factor for MS and suggest that EBV is the main cause” of this disease.

In search of the cure

Ascherio explained that the delay between EBV infection and the appearance of multiple sclerosis “may be due, in part, to the fact that the symptoms of the disease are not detected during the early stages and, in part, to the evolutionary relationship between the EBV and the host’s immune system, which is repeatedly stimulated each time the latent virus reactivates.”

There is currently no way to effectively prevent or treat EBV infection, but a vaccine against it or targeting it with specific antiviral drugs “could ultimately prevent or cure multiple sclerosis,” he added.

JU (effect, ap)

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