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

What is MS?

Key points

  1. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disorder that attacks myelin, a sheath-like membrane that covers your nerves.
  2. MS was first noted in 1838.
  3. There is no cure for MS, but continued research has come a long way in identifying and treating it.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the central nervous system. It affects the brain and spinal cord nerves that send messages throughout the body. In MS, the immune system attacks myelin, a sheath-like membrane that covers and protects your nerves. It also can damage the actual nerves.

People who have MS can experience symptoms that include:

  • 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 decades. 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 people with MS live healthy and fulfilling lives.

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 or spinal cord.

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 that the deceased woman exhibited when alive.

Charcot correctly assumed the lesions corresponded to the symptoms he described. But he didn’t know what caused the mysterious disease. His contribution was to describe the disease and give it a name. At that time, he offered no suggestion for treatment.

1870s: Official recognition

MS was recognized as a disease in the 1870s. Dr. Walter Moxen in England, and Dr. Edward Seguin in New York, observed a range of neurological symptoms in many people.

They found that MS affected females more often than males. The doctors also determined that MS wasn’t strictly genetic. Parents didn’t necessarily pass the disease down to their children.

1930s: Breakthrough and research

The first half of the 20th century saw a boom of medical breakthroughs that helped the medical community study the progression and symptoms of MS. It was now possible to view cells under a microscope. And it was also 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, 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 of the immune system.

The 1940s saw the establishment of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. This foundation continues to support MS research.

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 wasn’t understood until the following decade. One theory from the 1960s posited the immune system attacked the myelin coating of the nerves and 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. And it became useful as a diagnostic tool for disease. In 1981, an MRI was first used to view the brain of someone with MS. This new technology could show the damage incurred by MS even when people didn’t experience outward symptoms.

1990s: Drug treatment explosion

The 1990s could be named the “drug explosion” decade for MS treatments. Interferon, an injectable drug used to treat cancer, was approved as a treatment for relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) in the early and mid 1990s in the United States and Canada. And more disease-altering drugs were approved throughout the decade. These medications helped change the way the immune system attacks its own healthy tissues.

Scientists could treat MS more effectively now that more was known about it. Treatment could help control symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

2000s: New theories

The new millennium saw new theories about MS. It’s still unknown what causes demyelinating lesions in MS. But it’s believed to be an autoimmune mechanism. New research points toward a cascade effect leading to the damage and offers new thoughts on ways to prevent the damage.

These discoveries could help prevent the disease and minimize its effects.

A study published in a 2012 issue of Neurology reported that vitamin D may protect against MS. Another study in the Annals of Neurology proposed that oxygen may help prevent damage. Other evidence suggests that a combination of anti-inflammatory, regenerative, and neuroprotective strategies should be used.

2000s: Research continues

The wealth of information available about MS in the 21st century has grown exponentially since the 1860s. But more research is still needed to find a cure for this chronic, unpredictable disease.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society and many other organizations continue to search for new treatments to improve the quality of life for people who live with MS.

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