Multiple sclerosis (MS) is the most common neurological disease among young adults, typically appearing between the ages of 20 and 40. Over 400,000 Americans suffer from MS. More than 200 new patients are diagnosed each week and more women are affected than men. Symptoms vary. Initially visual disturbance such as double vision or red-green confusion may be experienced. Soon muscle fatigue, pain, numbness, stiffness, or pins and needles develop. As the disease progresses, patients may lose coordination and endure symptoms such as tremors, dizziness, slurred speech, trouble swallowing, and emotional disturbances.
The brain consists of billions of cells interconnected to form a complex network. Signals travel from cell to cell along “axons.” Axons function much like electrical wiring and, like electrical wires, have a protective sheath (known as myelin) to maintain the integrity and speed of the electrical signal. MS symptoms develop because cells and chemicals of the immune system attack the brain’s cells (neurons) and damage the myelin sheath. Areas of scarred myelin, called lesions, disrupt the transmission of messages.
It is not known what triggers the immune system to destroy the myelin. It appears that certain variations in genes predispose individuals to MS. Although patients are often prescribed disease-modifying drugs that slow down its progression and alleviate some of the symptoms, there is no cure for MS.