New Evidence Suggests Epstein-Barr Virus Causes Multiple Sclerosis

Researchers have found evidence suggesting that the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes a range of diseases including mononucleosis, could also trigger multiple sclerosis (MS).

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease in which a person’s immune system attacks the fibers and myelin sheath around the brain and spinal cord. According to the latest US data, an estimated 1 million people in the United States have the disease National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Some with MS may develop only mild symptoms of the disease, while others may lose the ability to walk or speak. What prompts the body’s immune system to attack itself has puzzled scientists.


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A team of researchers has found evidence that the unnatural immune response causes Epstein-Barr virus infection, according to a study published in Science.

“The hypothesis that EBV causes MS has been explored by our group and others for several years, but this is the first study to provide convincing evidence of causality,” said the study’s lead author Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Chan School, in an opinion. “This is a big step as it suggests that stopping EBV infection could prevent most MS cases and that tackling EBV could lead to the discovery of a cure for MS.”

To reach this conclusion, researchers conducted a study of more than 10 million adults on active duty in the US military and found 955 who had been diagnosed with MS while on duty.

The team analyzed military serum samples to determine whether each soldier was infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, which is present in about 95 percent of all adults, and then compared those results to whether they were diagnosed with MS during their military service had been active duty time.

Researchers found that MS risk increased 32-fold when a soldier was infected with the Epstein-Barr virus and remained unchanged when infected with another virus.

In addition, biomarkers of nerve degeneration that occurs in MS increased in soldiers infected with Epstein-Barr virus, leading researchers to hypothesize the virus as the main cause of MS.

“Currently, there is no way to effectively prevent or treat EBV infection, but an EBV vaccine or targeting the virus with EBV-specific antiviral drugs could ultimately prevent or cure MS.” said Asherio.


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