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Getting a Five-Year Head Start on MS

We don't know yet what triggers multiple sclerosis, but a massive study into preceding symptoms could help researchers find out.


Researchers at the University of British Columbia have identified a constellation of symptoms that are more common in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients up to five years before the disease becomes clinically apparent, offering hope for earlier detection and treatment.

MS is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks myelin, the protective coating around nerves that enables rapid transmission of electrical signals. Over time, damage to this coating causes communication between the brain and body to break down, resulting in a wide range of symptoms ranging from vision problems, muscle weakness and difficulty with balance and coordination, to cognitive impairment and extreme fatigue.

In Canada, MS affects an estimated 1 in every 385 people, one of the highest rates in the world, but researchers don’t yet know what triggers the disease.

As part of the largest-ever effort to document symptoms of people before they know they have MS, Helen Tremlett and her team in the Division of Neurology at UBC examined health records of 14,000 people with MS from B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia between 1984 and 2014. The results, published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal, shed light on what is happening in the years leading up to MS onset. 

Dr. Tremlett explains: “During the five years before the first signs show up, multiple sclerosis patients are up to four times more likely to be treated for sleep problems. Irritable bowel syndrome is twice as common and rates of fibromyalgia, musculoskeletal pain, depression, migraines, depression and anxiety disorder are also higher.”

Currently there is no cure for MS, and treatments focus on preventing disease progression and managing the symptoms. But understanding the period before MS develops, and potential warning signs, could help physicians understand what triggers the disease, and enable earlier diagnosis and treatment.

By opening the door to earlier interventions, this new understanding could help slow the damage MS causes to the brain and spinal cord, and offer opportunities to make significant improvements to the lives of people with MS.

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise