MS is a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that presents wide-ranging symptoms. The causes of the condition have been investigated for decades, yet few studies have managed to yield conclusive results. Now, a large-scale study on US military personnel has implied that a highly contagious kissing disease could trigger MS. Researchers are hopeful the findings could pave the way to effective treatment, which could largely eradicate the condition that currently afflicts 100,000 people in the UK.
Multiple sclerosis occurs when the body’s immune system learns to attack its own nerve fibres in the same fashion it learns to attack invading pathogens.
The attack usually affects the fatty myelin coating that wraps nerves located in the brain and spinal cord, leading to a cascade of neurological complications.
Without this lipid-dense chemical, signals travelling among the nerves become slow or fail to get through.
This pattern of misplaced learning has long perplexed researchers, a no cause has ever been established.
READ MORE: Multiple sclerosis symptoms: Most common type of MS and 8 key symptoms to watch for
But Harvard Scientists claim to have found ‘compelling evidence’ the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is to blame.
EBV, also known as the kissing disease, is a member of the herpes family that affects nine in ten people over the course of their lifetime.
Professor Alberto Ascherio, author of the study, said: “The hypothesis that EBV causes MS has been investigated by our group and others for several years.
“But this is the first study providing compelling evidence of causality.
“This is a big step because it suggests that most MS cases could be prevented by stopping EBV infection.
“Targeting EBV could lead to the discovery of a cure for MS.”
The findings, published in the journal Science, stem from blood samples collected from 10 million soldiers in the US military, over the four of two decades.
The team analysed the samples to assess levels of neurofilament light chain, the module that characterises MS.
They noted a marked increase in levels of the molecule after infection with Epstein Barr virus, suggesting a strong link between the two.
Doctor Clare Walton told MailOnline that nine in 10 people worldwide end up being infected with EBV. Most, however, do not go on to develop MS.
She said: “Ultimately, we can’t be certain that EBV is causing MS until we can see what impact preventing EBV infection has on MS incidence.
“And while research into EBV vaccines is underway, it is still at an early stage.”
Pinning down the relationship between multiple sclerosis and EBV would require further researchers.
Most people affected by MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, and many experience a loss of balance, muscle stiffness, numbers and tingling and pain.
In the more advanced stages of the condition, symptoms may become more debilitating, and patients may need a wheelchair.
At this stage, symptoms may include tremors, muscle spasms, speech problems, and muscle stiffness.
Doctor Ascherio, said the evidence linking EBV and MS could serve as the basis for better ways to treat MS and help prevent it.