The History of Multiple Sclerosis: How Far Have We Come?

Written by Erica Roth | Published on July 18, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on July 18, 2013

What Is MS?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease of the central nervous system. It affects various parts of the body and is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. In MS, the immune system attacks the myelin, a sheath-like membrane that covers and protects your nerves. People who have MS can experience a variety of symptoms, including, but not limited to:

  • blurred or double vision
  • tingling, numbness, or pain
  • extreme fatigue
  • loss of bladder control
  • memory problems
  • lack of concentration
  • difficulty walking

Symptoms that are consistent with MS have been studied for centuries. Researchers have come a long way in determining the causes and progression of the disease. There has also been considerable headway on treatment options that help multiple sclerosis patients live as normal a life as possible.

1838-1868: First Sightings

Autopsy reports dating back to 1838 were among the first “sightings” of MS. The reports included detailed images of the bodies of the deceased. These images showed what we now understand to be “plaques,” or areas of scar tissue caused by inflammation in the brain. In 1868, a French professor named Jean-Martin Charcot made an association between the plaques he saw in an autopsy with the tremors, slurred speech, and irregular eye movements from which the deceased woman suffered. Charcot correctly assumed the lesions corresponded with the symptoms he described. However, he didn’t know what caused the mysterious disease. 

1870s: Official Recognition

Multiple sclerosis was officially recognized as a disease in its own right in the 1870s. Drs. Walter Moxen in England and Edward Seguin in New York observed patients’ wide range of neurological symptoms. They found that multiple sclerosis affected females more often than males. The physicians also determined that MS was not strictly genetic. Parents did not necessarily pass the disease down to their children.

1930s: Breakthrough and Research

The first half of the twentieth century saw a boom of medical breakthroughs. These discoveries helped the medical community study the progression and symptoms of MS. It was now possible to view cells under a microscope. It was also now possible to detect abnormalities in spinal cord fluid and record electrical activity of the nerves. In 1935, the pieces of the MS puzzle started to come together. This was thanks to Dr. Thomas Rivers of New York’s Rockefeller Institute. Rivers proved through experiments with lab animals that MS was not a viral disease, but one of the immune system. The 1940s saw the establishment of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. This foundation continues to support MS research to the present day. 

1960s: The Role of the Immune System

The idea that MS was linked to the immune system was still being explored throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The connection was not clearly understood until the following decade. One theory made more concrete in the 1960s was the idea that the immune system attacked the myelin coating of the nerves, and thus acted like an autoimmune disease. 

1980s: The First MRI for MS

There were major technological advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) during the late 1970s. It became more useful as a diagnostic tool for disease. 1981 marked the first time that MRI was used to view the brain of someone with multiple sclerosis. Dr. I.R. Young performed the honors in England, and within a few years, it was clear that this new technology could show doctors the damage incurred by MS, even when patients experienced no outward symptoms.

1990s: Drug Treatment Explosion

Scientists could now turn to treating MS now that more was known about it. Effective treatment can help control symptoms and slow the progression of the disease, but is not a cure. The 1990s could be named the “drug explosion” decade in terms of MS treatments. Interferon, an injectable drug used to treat cancer, was approved as a treatment for relapsing-remitting MS in the early and mid-’90s in the United States and Canada. More disease-altering drugs were approved throughout the ’90s. These medications helped change the way the immune system attacks its own healthy tissues. 

2000s: New Theories

The new millennium saw numerous new theories regarding MS. These discoveries could help prevent the disease and minimize its potentially devastating effects. A study published in a 2000 issue of The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society reported that vitamin D may protect against MS, especially in people who have a genetic link. Research in Neurology suggests that the genetic risk for multiple sclerosis variants exist in African American versus European populations.

2000s: Research Continues

The wealth of information available about MS in the twenty-first century has grown exponentially since the 1860s. More research is still needed to continue to find a cure for this chronic, unpredictable disease. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society makes “[s]earching for better treatments, including better management of symptoms…a high priority.” Research and better treatments creates an improved quality of life for people who live with MS every day.

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