Data on familial recurrence rates of complex diseases such as multiple sclerosis give important hints to aetiological factors such as the importance of genes and environment. By linking national registries, we sought to avoid common limitations of clinic-based studies such as low numbers, poor representation of the population and selection bias. Through the Swedish Multiple Sclerosis Registry and a nationwide hospital registry, a total of 28 396 patients with multiple sclerosis were identified. We used the national Multi-Generation Registry to identify first and second degree relatives as well as cousins, and the Swedish Twin Registry to identify twins of patients with multiple sclerosis. Crude and age corrected familial risks were estimated for cases and found to be in the same range as previously published figures. Matched population-based controls were used to calculate relative risks, revealing lower estimates of familial multiple sclerosis risks than previously reported, with a sibling recurrence risk (λs = 7.1; 95% confidence interval: 6.42-7.86). Surprisingly, despite a well-established lower prevalence of multiple sclerosis amongst males, the relative risks were equal among maternal and paternal relations. A previously reported increased risk in maternal relations could thus not be replicated. An observed higher transmission rate from fathers to sons compared with mothers to sons suggested a higher transmission to offspring from the less prevalent sex; therefore, presence of the so-called 'Carter effect' could not be excluded. We estimated the heritability of multiple sclerosis using 74 757 twin pairs with known zygosity, of which 315 were affected with multiple sclerosis, and added information from 2.5 million sibling pairs to increase power. The heritability was estimated to be 0.64 (0.36-0.76), whereas the shared environmental component was estimated to be 0.01 (0.00-0.18). In summary, whereas multiple sclerosis is to a great extent an inherited trait, the familial relative risks may be lower than usually reported.
Keywords: familial recurrence; familial risk; multiple sclerosis; twin study.