Close family members of multiple sclerosis patients, especially women, can be at a higher risk of developing the disease and are more likely to have early signs of MS although they are asymptomatic, data from an ongoing and still recruiting study found.
Researchers behind the study, published in JAMA Neurology and titled “Assessment of Early Evidence of Multiple Sclerosis in a Prospective Study of Asymptomatic High-Risk Family Members,” recommend these people be closely monitored.
The researchers, led by Dr. Daniel Reich of the Division of Neuroimmunology and Neurovirology at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, assessed 100 people, ages 18 to 50, with at least one first-degree family member (such as a parent, sibling, or child) diagnosed with MS.
Using a risk algorithm called the Genetic and Environmental Risk Score for Multiple Sclerosis Susceptibility, they assessed the risk of each participant of developing MS.
Then, they further evaluated the 10% thought most at risk and the 10% least likely to develop the disease. The team looked at disability status in the groups, and performed eye, cognition (thinking ability), movement, and sensation tests. Finally, all participants underwent brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Results showed that 41 people — 40 of whom were women — were at high risk of developing MS, while 59 (34 of whom were men) were at low risk. Because the sex disparity between the two groups was so stark, the researchers continued their analysis by focusing exclusively on women (65 in total).
They found that higher-risk women differed from those at lower risk in all measured outcomes. For example, women at higher risk were significantly worse at perceiving vibrations in their feet compared to those at lower risk (in vibration sensitivity tests). Likewise, MRIs detected differences in the brains of those in the at-risk and the non-at-risk group, including signs in some of T2-weighted hyperintense lesions (5 women or 8%), suggesting they had a high risk of developing clinical symptoms of MS.
These findings suggest “that a subset of family members have an asymptomatic disease process and deserve further monitoring,” the research team wrote.
MS is a disease of the nervous system in which the immune system attacks the sheath that covers the nerve fibers (myelin). Loss of the myelin sheets and neurons often occur before any symptoms appear. Identifying people who are at high risk of developing MS is important for early disease detection and better management.