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MS the result of genetics and environment, study suggests

6 June 2011
Appeared in BioNews 610

Researchers have found a link between genetics and the environment that may help to explain the development of multiple sclerosis (MS). The study, published in Nature Communications, identified how vitamin D obtained through diet or sunlight, interacts with certain genes in the body to affect pathways thought to be linked to MS.

MS is an inflammatory auto-immune disease that is more common in women between the ages of 20 and 40. In MS the immune system attacks myelin, the insulation surrounding nerves in the brain and spinal cord. This can cause a variety of symptoms, ranging from tingling and numbness to muscle weakness, and problems with balance and co-ordination.

People living further away from the equator with less direct exposure to sunlight are more likely to develop MS. It was also found that vitamin D, which is produced by the skin when it is exposed to sunlight, is typically lower in people with MS.

Dr Michael Demetriou, a neurologist at the University of California, had previously identified four genes in mice that were thought to be involved in the regulation of MS. In the current study, he used this knowledge to look at the process in human cells to understand how the environment and, in particular, vitamin D may control it.

The findings suggest that vitamin D interacts with the four genes previously implicated in MS, altering the number and activity of immune cells, and causing them to attack the myelin around the nerve cells, as is seen in MS. The study also found that this process could be reduced by supplementing more vitamin D and the sugar N-acetylglucosamine.

Dr Demetriou said: 'MS results from complex interactions between an individual's genetics and his or her environment. Defining how these come together to induce the disease is critical for developing a cure'. He also told USA Today: 'MS patients should not be deficient in vitamin D, and they should talk to their doctor about a safe level, because it needs to be tested'.

Vitamin D and N-acetylglucosamine are both dietary supplements freely available over the counter.

Genetics and the environment converge to dysregulate N-glycosylation in multiple sclerosis
Nature Communications |  31 May 2011
Link between low vitamin D levels and African-Americans with MS
The Examiner |  30 May 2011
Multiple sclerosis mechanism uncovered
USA Today |  06/11
UCI researchers find link between environment and genetics in triggering MS
EurekAlert press release |  31 May 2011
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