What is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?

What is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic, incurable, and unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (CNS) including the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord. MS is characterized by the destruction of the fatty insulating myelin sheath that surrounds nerve cells and serves the dual purpose of augmenting the conduction of nervous signals and protecting the underlying axons from the destructive chemicals of the broader CNS environment. As myelin breaks down, lesions appear over demyelinated areas forming hard plaques, or sclerosis, which give the disease its name. The classical course of the disease involves an initial phase alternating between inflammatory autoimmune attacks on myelin by infiltrating T-cells and periods of remission and partial recovery, called relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS). RRMS can be followed by a progressive phase of irreversible degeneration of demyelinated and exposed nerve cells, called secondary progressive MS (SPMS). In some patients, the disease is progressive from the onset, called primary progressive MS (PPMS). These destructive processes cause a variety of disabling and sometimes painful symptoms including blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis, blindness, and irregular function of the bowels, bladder and sexual organs.

The distinguishing symptoms and pathological features of MS were first authoritatively described and presented to the medical community as indicative of a specific disease by Jean-Martin Charcot in 1868. An immunologic cause of MS was not seriously investigated until after World War II, and disease-modifying drugs that directly fight MS only began to appear in the early 1990s. Approximately 400,000 Americans acknowledge having MS, and every week about 200 individuals are diagnosed with MS. Worldwide, MS may affect more than 2.5 million individuals. The vast majority of the individuals inflicted with MS live a normal lifespan but MS patients may struggle to live productive lives, often with increasing limitations.

MS is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that the patient's own immune system attacks the nerve tissue. There is no full understanding of the cause and mechanism of the disease. While a variety of effective treatments have been shown to reduce some symptoms and, in some cases, arrest the progress of the disease, there is no cure for MS. For approximately 150 years after Charcot’s early descriptions of the disease, the pace of research into its cause and remedy was agonizingly slow. However, the last two decades have seen rapid improvements in MS treatment and, concomitantly with advances in the field of neuroimmunology, signs that major breakthroughs in basic MS research may be at hand. The Tisch MS Research Center of New York is at the forefront of these developments and is committed to discovering the cause of and the cure for MS.

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