Is MS sexist?

Most would agree that we should strive for equality. But you know who didn’t get the memo? MS. For every man who is diagnosed, two women will receive the news. Furthermore, evidence suggests the gender gap may even be increasing.

We’ve talked about this disparity before, and although we still don’t have a concrete reason why more women are diagnosed with MS, new studies are being conducted all the time, inching us closer to understanding this bias. In fact, understanding the differences between the immune and nervous systems of men and women may actually help us to understand more about MS itself.

Before we delve into some recent new data, let’s quickly recap some of the most important differences: MS is an autoimmune disease and in general these are more common in women than men. Women also tend to be diagnosed at an earlier age than men . Some “less bad” news for the fairer sex, however, is that women with MS tend to experience slower disability progression than men with the disease .

So the search is on to find differences between the sexes – beyond the obvious – that could isolate a gender-based trigger for the disease. Experts have already figured out that some sex hormones are implicated; for example, pregnancy can impact the course of MS.

Armed with the knowledge that elevated levels of a protein called galanin have been found in MS brains , Russian scientists realised that a specific gene, which codes for galanin production, is different in those with and without MS . They found that the difference in the gene was sex specific: the presence of a particular variant of the gene in men was associated with delayed onset of MS. And what’s more, the progression rate of MS in women was significantly accelerated if they carried a different variant of the gene .

Exciting work has been going on in Spain, too. Researchers there have suggested that MS relapse and remission states could actually be a result of different biological processes in men and women. Their research found that these states are regulated by genes (sncRNA) that that differ among men and women.

Understanding why MS seems to be a different beast for men and women could seriously advance our understanding of the disease itself. There are many different avenues of research being explored on this topic – but everything is starting to raise the same fundamental question: should we start considering the idea of treating MS differently in men and women?

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