Multiple sclerosis is a disease that affects the nervous system, based on an autoimmune response, or a malfunction of the immune system that causes it to attack the body as if it were a toxin. Patients with multiple sclerosis cannot be cured, though symptoms can be managed, and the disease can be mediated in order to change how quickly it progresses.
There are multiple types of MS, but they all share a similar start and symptoms, as well as several other aspects, including the fact that almost every type of MS will eventually start to worsen and cause deterioration to general functionality of the body.
The definition of multiple sclerosis
In the case of multiple sclerosis, the immune system creates antibodies to attack myelin, a substance coating nerves in the spine and brain. Because the specific reason this happens is unknown, multiple sclerosis is also defined as an immune-mediated disease. The immune response is controlled by T-cells, which function to create a defense against infecting germs and unwanted cell growth, such as cancer.
Digging deeper – what is myelin?
The nervous system runs through every part of the body and signals movement, feeling, and other important messages throughout the body and to the brain. The nerves found in the spinal cord and the brain are most important, as the central piece of the nervous system, and these are coated in a protective substance called myelin.
Myelin is made up of a number of proteins and forms a white-colored insulation around the nerve fibers to protect them. However, myelin also helps conduct the firing or signals through the system at a more rapid pace, allowing the electrical impulses that create a response of some kind in the body to flow faster between the nerves. Therefore, the immune system’s attack on myelin causes several factors that become symptomatic in multiple sclerosis:
- Removal of protection of the nerves
- Slowing of signals and improper signaling
- Increased inflammation from irritation to myelin and nerves
All of this results in poor nervous signals or loss of signal entirely, as well as pain and numbness (among other things) based on improper signals and swelling. In some types of MS, this is a repeated occurrence with some relief between episodes, while progressive MS means that there is no longer a remission of symptoms; they are constant and begin to worsen over time.
An immune mediated disease is one that is related to abnormal activity within the body’s immune system. This could be a hypersensitivity to a substance that wouldn’t normally trigger any response, or it could be an attack on something natural to the body that shouldn’t trigger a response (autoimmune). Autoimmune diseases are a sub category of immune-mediated diseases.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, which means it falls into the category of immune-mediated diseases. Most of the time, doctors have no idea what triggers the immune system to respond in such a way to the body, and there is yet to be an understanding of why the body attacks myelin and causes the symptoms of MS.
A group of cells called T-cells take on the responsibility of immune actions and could be the key to what leads scientists to a cure for autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis.
The function of T-cells
T-cells are regulators of the immune system. There are different types of T-cells with different purposes, and when the immune system malfunctions and attacks something in the body that is not unhealthy, it seems to be a misfire on all counts with the T-cells.
- Cytotoxic T-cells – These cells are directly responsible for any immunity that is mediated by cells and destroy any host cells that carry foreign objects into the body.
- Helper T-cells – These cells act like hall monitors and modulate the activities of any other cells related to immunity.
- Suppressor T-cells – As the name would suggest, these cells turn off, or suppress, any immune response.
- Memory T-cells – These retain the “formula” required to fight an antigen that was previously noted in the system and use that information to start the immune response again upon it being reintroduced to the system.
- B lymphocytes – While not actually called “T-cells”, these are in the same family and are responsible for producing antibodies that form an immune response.
- T lymphocytes – These are the cells that mediate immunity.
While different types of T-cells may be responsible in a variety of autoimmune disease, scientists studying multiple sclerosis have come to suspect that it’s the CD8+ cells – the cytotoxic T-cells that kill other cells, play a very important role in MS. In mouse models, CD4+ cells (Helper T-cells) seem to be responsible for inflammation.
Recent studies in myelin regrowth
Part of the problem with MS is that the attacks on myelin continue, whether the disease is still categorized as relapsing-remitting MS or has moved on to progressive MS. Therefore, the attacks continue to damage the myelin. However, if the damaging attacks could be slowed or stopped, something researchers continue to battle with, studies show promise in the idea of regrowth of myelin (an action that has so far been produced in mice).
If myelin were to regenerate, this would help reduce and repair some of the damage caused by multiple sclerosis, reducing and potentially even stopping symptoms, should the attacks be stopped as well. Patients, in the meantime, are advised to get as much rest and sleep as possible in order to promote healing and regrowth of myelin. Other potential vitamins and minerals that could assist in regenerating myelin include:
- Oxygen therapy
- Vitamin C
- Gingko biloba
- Omega-3 fatty acids
With multiple sclerosis, most of the factors involved can at least be tamed, but some of the things involved are beyond control, including the way the immune system reacts and how the T-cells function toward the nerves in the spine and head, especially the myelin coating.
By arming with information on the disease and how it can affect the way the body works, it becomes easier to identify symptoms, get doctors the information they need to improve research and find ways to mediate symptoms for a fuller life.