How could a connection between your brain and immune system impact your multiple sclerosis? We take a look. | Living Like Youread more
According to a recent survey, nearly half of the population actually thinks that multiple sclerosis affects men and women equally . If you’ve taken a look at our infographic, however, you know better. While there are many things we still don’t know about MS, one thing we do know is that women are two to three times more likely to develop the disease than men , (so much for equal opportunities!).
But it’s not just MS that affects more women than men. It seems women are more likely than men to develop autoimmune conditions in general . The most often discussed theories as to why this might be are ‘blaming’ genes and hormones.
Scientists have long suspected genes play a role in the development of MS. A study published in the journal Neurology, for example, found that women with MS were more likely to have a specific genetic variant linked to the disease than men .
Hormonal changes are also likely to play a part. In women, the disease usually strikes during childbearing years, and symptoms often increase for a short period after childbirth . Some women also report that their MS symptoms change with their menstrual cycle . Men, meanwhile, are more likely to develop MS in their 30s or 40s, which is around the time their testosterone levels start to decline . This suggests the balance of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone may be involved in MS.
Now an experimental study in animals has shed more light on this question. Small teaser – rather than looking at what makes women more susceptible to MS, these scientists want to figure out what makes men less susceptible. Here are the details.
A lab in Chicago has put forward evidence that differences in the male and female immune systems may also be an important factor. The researchers were studying mice that had a form of MS (EAE, or experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis) and discovered a particular gene mutation that made the male mice really sick, but had no real effect on females.
When the researchers looked more closely, it became clear that the reason the male mice were becoming sick was because the gene mutation prevented an immune response that normally protects males from MS – the activation of a white blood cell known as a “type 2 innate lymphoid cell”. Further investigation revealed that these immune cells appear to act differently in male and female mice without the mutation. In males, the cells somehow become activated and somehow ‘protect’ the mouse from MS. In females they remain inactive, leaving the mouse susceptible to developing the disease.
The researchers are now looking at what it is that activates these handy little lymphoid cells in males. If they can work out how to do that then it’s possible they could activate the cells in female mice too – and eventually women! – decreasing their susceptibility to MS as well as other autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Obviously it’s early days, and a lot more research needs to be carried out, but this is a promising piece of the puzzle nonetheless. In the future, management of your MS may well depend upon your gender and could be tailored accordingly. A little special treatment sounds good to us.