Study: Genetics discovery may help in MS fight

January 12, 2024
A new study has found the genes that significantly increase a person’s risk of developing multiple sclerosis were introduced into north-western Europe around 5,000 years ago by sheep and cattle herders migrating from the east.
By analyzing the DNA of ancient human bones and teeth, found at documented locations across Eurasia, an international team of researchers traced the geographical spread of MS from its origins on the Pontic Steppe (a region spanning parts of what are now Ukraine, South-West Russia, and the West Kazakhstan Region). The age of specimens ranges from the Mesolithic and Neolithic through the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Viking period into the Middle Ages. The oldest genome in the data set is from an individual who lived approximately 34,000 years ago.

They found that the genetic variants linked to a risk of developing MS ‘travelled’ with the Yamnaya people. These genetic variants provided a survival advantage to the Yamnaya people, most likely by protecting them from catching infections from their sheep and cattle. But they also increased the risk of developing MS.

The findings provide an explanation for the ‘North-South Gradient’, in which there are around twice as many modern-day cases of MS in northern Europe than southern Europe, which has long been a mystery to researchers.

Previous studies have identified 233 genetic variants that increase the risk of developing MS. These variants, also affected by environmental and lifestyle factors, increase risk of disease by around 30 percent. The new research found that this modern-day genetic risk profile for MS is also present in bones and teeth that are thousands of years old.

The study’s authors note the findings mean we can now understand and seek to treat MS for what it actually is: the result of a genetic adaptation to certain environmental conditions that occurred in prehistory.

The new findings were made possible by the analysis of data held in a unique gene bank of ancient DNA, created by the researchers during the past five years with funding from the Lundbeck Foundation. This is the first gene bank of its kind in the world and already it has offered new insights in areas from ancient human migrations, to genetically-determined risk profiles for the development of brain disorders.

MS is a neurodegenerative disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the ‘insulation’ surrounding the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord. This causes symptom flares known as relapses as well as longer-term degeneration, known as progression.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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