The causal cascade to multiple sclerosis: a model for MS pathogenesis

PLoS One. 2009;4(2):e4565. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004565. Epub 2009 Feb 26.


Background: MS pathogenesis seems to involve both genetic susceptibility and environmental risk factors. Three sequential factors are implicated in the environmental risk. The first acts near birth, the second acts during childhood, and the third acts long thereafter. Two candidate factors (vitamin D deficiency and Epstein-Barr viral infection) seem well suited to the first two environmental events.

Methodology/principal findings: A mathematical Model for MS pathogenesis is developed, incorporating these environmental and genetic factors into a causal scheme that can explain some of the recent changes in MS-epidemiology (e.g., increasing disease prevalence, a changing sex-ratio, and regional variations in monozygotic twin concordance rates).

Conclusions/significance: This Model suggests that genetic susceptibility is overwhelmingly the most important determinant of MS pathogenesis. Indeed, over 99% of individuals seem genetically incapable of developing MS, regardless of what environmental exposures they experience. Nevertheless, the contribution of specific genes to MS-susceptibility seems only modest. Thus, despite HLA DRB1*1501 being the most consistently identified genetic marker of MS-susceptibility (being present in over 50% of northern MS patient populations), only about 1% of individuals with this allele are even genetically susceptible to getting MS. Moreover, because genetic susceptibility seems so similar throughout North America and Europe, environmental differences principally determine the regional variations in disease characteristics. Additionally, despite 75% of MS-patients being women, men are 60% more likely to be genetically-susceptible than women. Also, men develop MS at lower levels of environmental exposure than women. Nevertheless, women are more responsive to the recent changes in environmental-exposure (whatever these have been). This explains both the changing sex-ratio and the increasing disease prevalence (which has increased by a minimum of 32% in Canada over the past 35 years). As noted, environmental risk seems to result from three sequential components of environmental exposure. The potential importance of this Model for MS pathogenesis is that, if correct, a therapeutic strategy, designed to interrupt one or more of these sequential factors, has the potential to markedly reduce or eliminate disease prevalence in the future.

MeSH terms

  • Disease Susceptibility*
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Europe
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / epidemiology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / etiology*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / pathology
  • North America
  • Pregnancy
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Ratio