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Common Childhood Virus Linked to Multiple Sclerosis

January 21, 2022

New research from the Harvard School of Public Health recently strengthened the connection between the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) and the onset of multiple sclerosis (MS).

The underlying cause of MS — a chronic disease of the central nervous system that can cause vision loss, pain and impaired coordination — is unknown, but providers have long eyed EBV. This latest research, published in the journal Science, was culled from medical files of more than 10 million American military personnel over 20 years.

The results are exciting to MS specialists like Dr. Derek Smith of the Hartford HealthCare Ayer Neuroscience Institute, who called the information “the strongest evidence to date” of the connection with EBV, a common virus that infects most people in childhood and remains in the body as they age.

“By mid-adulthood, almost everyone has been exposed to this virus. In about half the people who contract it, it causes mononucleosis or ‘mono,’” Dr. Smith said. “EBV can then go on to infect white blood cells chronically. Infection with this virus is thought to account for hundreds of thousands of white blood cell cancer cases per year. It has also been studied for decades as a potential trigger for autoimmune illnesses such as multiple sclerosis.”

Pinpointing time of infection with EBC and the onset of MS has been challenging, he said, because most people are exposed to this virus. In this recent Harvard research, 955 young adults in the military with newly-diagnosed MS were studied. Researchers pinpointed the timing of the onset antibodies to EBV with a high degree of certainty, Dr. Smith said.

“When compared to the timing of onset of MS, there seems to be a clear cause-and-effect relationship. This does not necessarily mean that EBV causes all cases of multiple sclerosis, but that the infection can trigger the illness in some people,” Dr. Smith said. “Antibody responses to other viruses were tested in the serum samples as well and did not seem to have the same relationship to the onset of MS.”

MS risk also stems from a person’s susceptibility to the disease as a result of genetics, environment and lifestyle choices, he said.

The latest research, he added, opens up new avenues for research into the prevention of MS, including as the use of EBV antiviral therapy or a preventative vaccine.