Impairment of heme synthesis in myelin as potential trigger of multiple sclerosis

Med Hypotheses. 2012 Jun;78(6):707-10. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2012.02.015. Epub 2012 Mar 6.


The pathogenesis of multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease characterized by demyelination and subsequent axonal degeneration, is as yet unknown. Also, the nature of the disease is as yet not established, since doubts have been cast on its autoimmune origin. Genetic and environmental factors have been implied in MS, leading to the idea of an overall multifactorial origin. An unexpected role in energizing the axon has been reported for myelin, supposed to be the site of consumption of most of oxygen in brain. Myelin would be able to perform oxidative phosphorylation to supply the axons with ATP, thanks to the expression therein of mitochondrial F(o)F(1)-ATP synthase, and respiratory chains. Interestingly, myelin expresses the pathway of heme synthesis, hence of cytochromes, that rely on heme group, in turn depending on Fe availability. Poisoning by these pollutants shares the common characteristic to bring about demyelination both in animal models and in man. Carbon monoxide (CO) and lead poisoning which cause functional imbalance of the heme group, as well as of heme synthesis, cause myelin damage. On the other hand, a lack of essential metals such as iron and copper, produces dramatic myelin decrease. Myelin is a primary target, of iron shortage, indicating that in myelin Fe-dependent processes are more active than in other tissues. The predominant spread of MS in industrialized countries where pollution by heavy metals, and CO poisoning is widespread, suggests a relationship among toxic action of metal pollutants and MS. According to the present hypothesis, MS can be primarily triggered by environmental factors acting on a genetic susceptibility, while the immune response may be a consequence of a primary oxidative damage due to reactive oxygen species produced consequently to an imbalance of cytochromes and respiratory chains in the sheath.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biosynthetic Pathways / drug effects*
  • Carbon Monoxide / metabolism
  • Carbon Monoxide / toxicity
  • Environmental Pollutants / metabolism
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Heme / biosynthesis*
  • Humans
  • Metals, Heavy / metabolism
  • Metals, Heavy / toxicity
  • Models, Biological*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / etiology*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / physiopathology
  • Myelin Sheath / metabolism*


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Metals, Heavy
  • Heme
  • Carbon Monoxide