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Nature.com Blog: Debate over role of Eppstein-Barr virus in MS reinvigorated

Tony Mach

Show me the evidence.
Upper Palatinate, Bavaria
Debate over role of Eppstein-Barr virus in MS reinvigorated

06 Jan 2012 | 17:48 GMT | Posted by Brian Owens | Category: Health and medicine

Posted on behalf of Katherine Rowland.

Research on the possible contribution of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) to Multiple Sclerosis (MS) has yielded discordant results. However, a new study on EBV and MS suggests that the association may be more sophisticated than thought.

MS is a multifactorial disease; its causes are many and include both genetic and environmental influences.

EBV is one of several identified infectious risk factors. Its not the only candidate, says Jan Lnemann of the University of Zurich, but it is by far the strongest candidate.

A professor at the Institute of Experimental Immunology, Lnemann explains: We know there is an epidemiological link between symptomatic EBV, or mononucleosis, and MS risk later in life. That is accepted in the field. The controversy is whether EBV drives the inflammation of the central nervous system associated with MS.

The controversy also pertains to a brief, but contentious, history of inconsistent findings. In 2009, a group of Italian researchers released a provocative report in the Journal of Experimental Medicine offering evidence to suggest a strong connection between EBV infection and MS. However, subsequent attempts to replicate the findings did not establish a link.

According to Lnemann, the new study, published this week in the journal Neurology, Reopens a debate that was heading towards a negative conclusion.

Investigators at the Queen Mary University of London analysed post-mortem tissue samples from areas where MS damage had occurred. Using EBV-encoded RNA, the researchers found that even though the virus was not active, it was still releasing chemical messages affecting the bodys immune system.

EBV is a very clever virus, explains Ute-Christiane Meier, one of the studys co-authors. It was surprising to find it in the non-active, latent stage, in a less aggressive form.

Meier admits that the role of a viral agent in MS is mired in controversy. People have tried to pinpoint trendy viruses for decades.

Although the research team identified latent EBV in 100% of their samples, the authors are quick to acknowledge more than 90% of the general population already carries the virus. The near-universality of EBV has both hindered and helped researchers efforts to understand its role in MS.

EBV stands out, says Alberto Ascherio, of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. Its the only virus for which weve demonstrated that infection versus non-infection is related to MS risk. However, Ascherio adds that that EBV does not have a direct effect.

Thats not the picture. MS is obviously not a direct result of an overwhelming EBV or other viral infection, its connected to a more complicated immunologic response.

And, according to Ascherio, the new study may help to make sense of some of the complications. It may help to bridge the controversy between EBV and MS lesions.

For Meier, who describes the virus as a culprit at the scene of the crime, the findings raise further questions about the persistence of EBV in the population, and how it has evolved ways to hide out in a non-active state. Its not in the interest of EBV to kill its host. Its very manipulative. It wants to spread to as many other hosts as possible, and remain innate, otherwise its host wouldnt survive, and neither would it.


As both EBV has been implicated in ME/CFS by some, and ME/CFS has been (mis-)diagnosed as MS or atypical MS in the history, the one sentence I highlighted really sticked out for me.

My money with regards to MS is on Terry Wahls we'll see, maybe it is the interaction between bad nutrition and an EBV infection.

When one sees how much research money is spent on MS, how slowly the knowledge progresses there and how difficult it is to pin down the actual culprit, I think I prepare myself for the possibility that Lipkin will not find a smoking gun. We'll see, we'll see.

(And I find the describing of EBV in the last paragraph as if it were a sentient being quite misleading.)


Senior Member
EBV is a very clever virus, explains Ute-Christiane Meier, one of the studys co-authors. It was surprising to find it in the non-active, latent stage, in a less aggressive form.

REALLY! Not to me and I'm sure a lot of other folks. It's funny how research into many different diseases, disorders and illnesses suggest an involvement with EBV.