Image is of an ancient skull, featured image for a blog around the causes of MS

Breakthrough discovery on ancient causes of MS

A recent study suggests that the genes that increase the risk of multiple sclerosis (MS) entered into north-west Europe via mass migration 5,000 years ago via cattle herders from Russia, Ukraine and Kazhakstan.

At the time, these genes carried by the cattle herders, called the Yamnaya people, would have helped protect them from the diseases carried by their cattle and sheep. But due to huge lifestyle changes and modern hygiene practices, these genes have assumed a different role, and have led to an increased risk in diseases such as MS.

MS is about twice as prevalent in north-western Europe areas such as the UK and Scandinavia in comparison with southern Europe, and these findings may help to explain why.

The researchers call their discovery “a quantum leap” in understanding the evolution of the disease.

It took scientists more than ten years of research, extracting genetic information from ancient skeletons found in Europe and Western Asia and comparing it with information from hundreds of thousands of UK residents in the present day.

Author of the paper, Professor Lars Fugger, who is an MS doctor at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, said that MS is not caused by mutations, but is driven by normal genes there to protect us from pathogens, and this information helps to ‘demystify’ the disease.

Current treatments involve suppressing or modifying the immune system which can leave people more susceptible to infections, but Prof Fugger says science needs to find a ‘sweet spot’ where there is a balance.