June 20, 2007 -- Rare childhood cases of multiple sclerosis (MS) may take about a decade longer to worsen than adult cases, according to a new European study.
In MS, the body's immune system attacks the nerves of the brain and spinal cord. It usually strikes adults, but up to 10% of cases begin by age 16, note the researchers.
They included Christian Confavreux, MD, of the European Database for Multiple Sclerosis Coordinating Center.
Confavreux and colleagues studied 394 French and Belgian children diagnosed with multiple sclerosis before their 17th birthday (average age: nearly 14).
Most of those patients had the relapsing-remitting form of MS, in which symptoms come and go. As with adult MS, childhood MS was more common among females than males.
The researchers compared those children to 1,775 adults who developed MS when they were 32 years old, on average.
Childhood, Adult MS
When MS started in childhood, it took about 10 years longer to worsen to the point at which patients had trouble walking, the study shows.
But childhood cases began nearly 20 years earlier than adult-onset cases. So even with the decade of delay in worsening symptoms, patients with childhood-onset MS were younger than adult patients when walking became difficult.
"Patients with childhood-onset multiple sclerosis take longer to reach states of irreversible disability but do so at a younger age than patients with adult-onset multiple sclerosis," write the researchers.
It's not clear why childhood-onset MS took longer to worsen to that point than adult-onset MS.
About half of the children with MS took drugs that target the immune system, but "none of these drugs has a proven effect on the long-term development of disability," write the researchers.
The study appears in The New England Journal of Medicine.
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