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Is multiple sclerosis (MS) caused by an allergy?

Louis Rosner
Neurology

Multiple sclerosis (MS) would not be an allergy to an environmental substance such as a hay fever attack from pollen or a skin rash from a new soap. What scientists link to MS is autoimmunity - when a person becomes allergic to his or her own tissue and produces antibodies that attack healthy cells.

A well-known example of an autoallergy is rheumatic fever, in which the person's own antibodies attack heart valves and joints. Rheumatic fever actually starts with a streptococcus infection (such as strep throat in childhood). The individual produces antibodies against the infection, but later, those antibodies backfire and attack healthy tissues by mistake. This is called an autoimmune reaction.

There are many autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (in which antibodies attack joints), lupus (in which antibodies attack small blood vessels), and myasthenia gravis (in which antibodies attack muscles).

There is very strong evidence that multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease in which the body's own defense system mistakenly forms antibodies that attack myelin. Three areas of research support this theory. First, in laboratory animal experiments, scientists have been able to produce antibodies that attack myelin, so they know it is possible. Second, it has been known for fifty-five years that the spinal fluid of people with MS shows an increased level of antibodies called immunoglobulins. And third, treatments directed against the autoimmune process are often effective.

In summary, it seems very likely that the initial event that starts MS is a viral infection, but the autoimmune process is what keeps MS going.

To date, no specific antibody for multiple sclerosis has been identified, and attempts to show response to brain or viral material have failed. So, while all the abnormalities are intriguing, there is no scientific proof as yet. Still, the combination theory of an early virus attack causing a later autoimmune response is, many believe, the most logical explanation.

Multiple Sclerosis

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.