Research we’re watching
Harvard researchers say that multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurological illness that affects the brain and spinal cord, may be triggered by infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). EBV is the most common cause of mononucleosis.
The findings, published online Jan. 13, 2022, by Science, came from an analysis of blood samples taken every other year from young adults serving in the U.S. military over a 20-year period. Among more than 10 million people included in the study, 955 were diagnosed with MS during their military service. Those individuals who had evidence of previous infection with the Epstein-Barr virus had 32 times the risk of developing MS compared with those who never were affected by the virus. There was no change in MS risk for those who had tested positive for a panel of other common viral infections, only for Epstein-Barr virus.
The researchers said that Epstein-Barr virus can establish a persistent, silent infection that may trigger the onset of MS in some people. But it’s important to note that while 95% of adults are estimated to have been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, only a very small number go on to develop MS.
Other studies have also shown a possible link between EBV infection and MS, and these study results bolster that hypothesis. It’s possible that a vaccine to prevent Epstein-Barr infections could help to prevent MS, or that studies of the virus could lead to new MS treatments. But more research is needed.
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