Studying blood samples taken from nine MS patients, researchers found that these people carried antibodies that bonded both to the Epstein-Barr virus as well as a protein called GlialCAM found in the human nervous system. Nearly 1 million Americans are affected by multiple sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease that disrupts nerve signals from the brain to the body. MS causes people to develop symptoms like numbness, muscle spasms, walking difficulties, speech problems and paralysis. GlialCAM is an “adhesion molecule” that serves as the glue for myelin, a fatty insulating sheath that coats nerve fibers much like the coating you’d find around an extension cord or electrical wire, Robinson said.
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That study of more than 10 million U.S. military personnel established a “very tight link” between Epstein-Barr and MS, Robinson said. EBV was present in all but one out of 801 MS cases that occurred among that group over 20 years. This new paper explains the results of a study published recently in the journal Science, in which it was found that MS risk skyrockets 32-fold after a person is infected with Epstein-Barr.
But the previous research left unanswered why the ubiquitous “mono” virus — about 95% of people are infected by Epstein-Barr at some point in their lives — might cause MS, much less why it would trigger the nerve disease only in a select number of unlucky souls. “We demonstrated that a specific protein in EBV mimics a protein in people’s brains, and that mimicry is what makes EBV cause multiple sclerosis,” explained senior researcher Dr. William Robinson, chief of immunology and rheumatology at Stanford University in California.
The genetics of a person’s immune system provides the last critical piece of the puzzle, Robinson added. Only certain people carry the specific genetic variations that cause the immune system to mistake GlialCAM for the Epstein-Barr virus. “Certain genes bind the EBV proteins in a certain way, and that’s what makes those individuals get MS,” Robinson explained. “It’s how other genes in a person’s body bond and present the EBV to the immune system that determines who gets MS and who doesn’t.” “This really provides a plausible mechanism by which we might connect immune response to Epstein-Barr virus to trigger MS,” said Mark Allegretta, vice president of research for the National MS Society.
Essentially, an MS patient’s immune system mistakes this essential component of nerve protection with the Epstein-Barr virus and attacks, harming the myelin coating and damaging the nervous system. “When you destroy that myelin coating, the nerves in your body no longer conduct properly, just like an electrical wire no longer conducts properly” without its insulating coating, Robinson said.
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