Association between tumor necrosis factor-alpha and disease progression in patients with multiple sclerosis

N Engl J Med. 1991 Aug 15;325(7):467-72. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199108153250704.


Background: Cachectin, or tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), is a principal mediator of the inflammatory response and may be important in the pathogenesis and progression of multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system.

Methods: In a 24-month prospective study, we used a sensitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay to determine levels of TNF-alpha in cerebrospinal fluid and serum in 32 patients with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis and in 20 with stable multiple sclerosis and 85 with other neurologic diseases. An attempt was made to relate TNF-alpha levels with the degree of disability of the patients with multiple sclerosis and with their neurologic deterioration during the 24 months of observation.

Results: High levels of TNF-alpha were found in the cerebrospinal fluid of 53 percent of the patients with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis and in none of those with stable multiple sclerosis (P less than 0.001). TNF-alpha was detected in the cerebrospinal fluid of 7 percent of the controls (P less than 0.01) with other neurologic disease. In patients with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis, mean TNF-alpha levels were significantly higher in the cerebrospinal fluid than in corresponding serum samples (52.41 vs. 11.88 U per milliliter; range, 2 to 178 vs. 2 to 39; P less than 0.001). In these patients, cerebrospinal fluid levels of TNF-alpha correlated with the degree of disability (r = 0.834, P less than 0.001) and the rate of neurologic deterioration (r = 0.741, P less than 0.001) before the start of the study. Cerebrospinal fluid levels also correlated with the increase in neurologic disability after 24 months of observation (r = 0.873, P less than 0.001).

Conclusions: These data provide evidence of intrathecal synthesis of TNF-alpha in multiple sclerosis and suggest that the level of TNF-alpha in cerebrospinal fluid correlates with the severity and progression of the disease. Our results suggest that TNF-alpha may reflect histologic disease activity in multiple sclerosis and could be used to monitor outcomes or responses to therapy.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Biomarkers / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Sclerosis / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Multiple Sclerosis / diagnosis
  • Multiple Sclerosis / physiopathology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / analysis*
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / cerebrospinal fluid


  • Biomarkers
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha