A new study conducted by researchers at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests a potential link between Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis (MS). So what exactly did the study find, and what does this mean for future MS prevention? Here's what we know so far.
A new study published in the journal Science suggests a potential link between Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis (MS). The study, which was conducted by Dr. Alberto Ascherio of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that people who had Epstein-Barr virus were more likely to develop MS.
This is the first study to provide evidence that Epstein-Barr virus could play a role in causing MS, but before we get into the research, let’s do some level-setting.
What Is Epstein-Barr Virus?
The Epstein-Barr virus is a common virus that is best known for causing mononucleosis, or mono for short. It’s estimated that more than 95 percent of adults have been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus by the time they are 40 years old.
The virus usually causes no symptoms or only mild ones, such as fever and fatigue. However, in some people, the Epstein-Barr virus can cause more serious illnesses.
What Is MS?
MS is a chronic neurological disease that affects more than two million people worldwide. It’s characterized by the destruction of myelin, which is the protective covering around nerve cells.
This damage can lead to a variety of symptoms, including muscle weakness, paralysis, and vision problems. There’s no cure for MS, and the cause is currently unknown—although according to this recent study, the Epstein-Barr virus may have a role to play.
What Did the Study Find?
To investigate whether there’s a link between the Epstein-Barr virus and MS, a team of researchers looked at blood samples, taken every two years, from more than 10 million active-duty military personnel from 1993 to 2013. They analyzed 801 samples of those who later developed MS and compared them to more than 1,500 matched controls.
It was found that there was a higher rate of Epstein-Barr virus infection among those who developed MS than among the controls. The researchers were then able to calculate that people infected with Epstein-Barr virus were 32 times more likely to develop MS than those who were uninfected.
To further test their hypothesis that Epstein-Barr virus could be the cause of MS in these samples, researchers compared antibodies against cytomegalovirus, which is another herpesvirus. No difference was found in the levels who developed MS and those that didn’t.
And since nerve damage can be seen in people who develop MS, they also measured blood levels of neurofilament light chain (NfL), a biomarker for nerve degeneration. It was found that NfL increased after infection with Epstein-Barr virus, but only during an active phase when inflammation is at its peak before an MS diagnosis has occurred.
What Does This Mean for MS Prevention?
While these findings strongly suggest that Epstein-Barr virus is part of the cause of many MS cases, it is not the sole factor. Things like genetic composition and vitamin D deficiency will also increase a person’s risk for MS, but these findings suggest that most MS cases could be prevented by stopping Epstein-Barr virus infection.
Doctrow, PhD, Brian. “Study Suggests Epstein-Barr Virus May Cause Multiple Sclerosis.” National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, February 8, 2022. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/study-suggests-epstein-barr-virus-may-cause-multiple-sclerosis#:~:text=Out%20of%20the%20801%20MS,and%20any%20other%20human%20viruses.
Denworth, Lydia. “Epstein-Barr Virus Found to Trigger Multiple Sclerosis.” Scientific American. Scientific American, January 13, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/epstein-barr-virus-found-to-trigger-multiple-sclerosis/.