Multiple Sclerosis: Race a Factor?
Study Shows Immune System Difference in African-Americans and Whites With Multiple Sclerosis
WebMD News Archive
July 6, 2007 -- Multiple sclerosis may affect the immune systems of
African-Americans and whites differently, a new study shows.
The study, published in the latest edition of the journal Neurology,
points out that multiple sclerosis (MS) is rarer but often more severe in
African-Americans than in whites.
No one knows exactly why that is, but genetics might be a factor, according
to the new study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal
The study comes from John Rinker II, MD, and colleagues. They work in St.
Louis at Washington University's medical school.
The researchers checked the medical records of 66 African-Americans with
multiple sclerosis and 132 whites with multiple sclerosis.
All of those patients had had their spinal fluid tested. The researchers
noted higher levels of antibodies in the African-Americans' spinal fluid.
Antibodies are part of the body's immune system. Normally, antibodies attack
foreign matter, such as viruses, to protect the body.
But in autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis, the body's immune
system fights the body's own tissue for reasons that aren't fully understood.
In MS, the brain and nervous system bear the brunt of the immune system's
Multiple Sclerosis Genetic Link?
Higher levels of antibodies might stem from racial genetic differences, but
that's not certain, note Rinker and colleagues.
"The findings show that ethnic differences in MS extend to the immune
response system, which plays a central role in MS," Rinker says in an
American Academy of Neurology news release.
"It remains possible that genes are unevenly distributed between ethnic
groups to account for different susceptibility to some diseases," says
"In MS, recent genetic studies have begun to identify certain genes
which may explain why African-Americans experience more disability, but the
products of these genes and the mechanism of their effects remain unknown,"
However, the study doesn't prove that high levels of antibodies make
multiple sclerosis worse. The exact cause of multiple sclerosis isn't
Not all MS patients get their spinal fluid checked, and lab results may
vary, so it's not clear if the study's findings apply to all African-Americans
or whites with MS.
In Rinker's study, African-Americans with multiple sclerosis developed
trouble walking sooner than whites. But that didn't appear to be due solely to
African-Americans' higher levels of antibodies in their spinal fluid.
The researchers call for further studies to learn more about the differences
in multiple sclerosis between African-Americans and whites.