What Exactly Is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?

We have all heard about multiple sclerosis or MS, but do you truly understand what this disease is and how it affects the body? According to The National MS Society, more than 2.3 million people are affected by MS worldwide and since the CDC does not require physicians to report new cases the number in the United States can only be estimated. This disease affects us by causing our immune system to attack our own central nervous system. What happens is multiple sclerosis causes inflammation that affects the myelin of our nerves that causes symptoms that can last weeks, months, or even be permanent.

Understanding Our Central Nervous System

Since MS attacks our central nervous system, it’s a good idea to understand how the brain and spinal cord, collectively known as the CNS, works. Our nervous system is full of cells called neurons. Since there are many types of neurons in the central nervous system, we need to focus on those in the white matter tissue. These are the neurons that are most likely to be attacked by MS. Here is a simplified diagram of a neuron complements of

This type of neuron contains an elongated section called the axon. It’s this part of the cell that the electrical impulses from our brain travel. The axon is coated with a fatty protein called myelin. Attached to the axon also are cells called oligodendrocytes, which are maintenance cells which create and repair myelin. The more that multiple sclerosis is studied these maintenance cells are becoming more of a focal point. It’s the death of these cells that does not allow for the repair or production of new myelin and therefore hinders electrical impulses to our muscles. The degeneration of axon cells is called Wallerian Degeneration.

How Does Myelin Fit into the Equation?

Our muscles move by receiving electrical impulses from our brain that travel through our nerves. This electrical signal travels on the outside of our nerves through a coating called myelin. When white blood cells are drawn to regions of white matter they create what’s called the inflammatory response and causes damage to myelin. The damage to our myelin is called demyelination. This effectively works the same way as the damaged insulation of an electrical circuit. It impedes the transmission of nerve signals or can even jump the signal to other demyelinated axons. When our myelin is damaged our muscles may not function properly or at all (paralysis). The inflammation can also affect oligodendrocytes, which are cells that produce central nervous system myelin. Some believe it’s the damage to these maintenance cells that are at the core of MS. It’s the damage to our central nervous system that presents itself as symptoms of MS. After axons have been demyelinated several things can occur. Everything from normal neuron activity to scarring from lost myelin can take place. It’s actually from the scarring that multiple sclerosis got its name: multiple-many, and sclerosis-scarring. It’s the scarring that can block the formation of new myelin and not allow cells to regain their full function.

Is This Disease Hereditary?

In 2003, The International MS Genetics Consortium (IMSGC) was formed in order to answer the question of whether or not multiple sclerosis was hereditary. In July 2007 they identified two genes that influence the risk of developing MS. Prior to that only one gene have been identified and that was in the 1970s. Even though the cause of MS is still unknown, new research has made it clear that MS has a complex genetic background and that a combination of genes, environment, and immunology all play a part in the development of MS.


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