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Epstein-Barr virus is one of the most common human viruses in the world. It is the primary cause of mononucleosis (often called “mono”) – a highly infectious disease that affects mostly teenagers and young adults. Findings from a recent study suggest that Epstein-Barr infection increases a person’s risk for developing multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder characterized by the progressive destruction of myelin – the insulating sheath that surrounds nerves and facilitates neural transmission. The disease affects approximately 3 million people worldwide and is twice as likely to manifest in women than men. Symptoms of multiple sclerosis typically appear between the ages of 20 and 50 years.

The study investigators analyzed blood samples from more than 10 million active duty military personnel, collected during routine health exams over a period of 20 years. From this group, they identified 801 personnel who had been tested for Epstein-Barr virus and later developed multiple sclerosis while on active duty. The investigators looked for the presence of antibodies in the blood samples that signaled past Epstein-Barr infection, as well as a protein called neurofilament light chain, a marker of myelin degeneration.

They found that the average age at which personnel were diagnosed with Epstein-Barr infection was 20 years; multiple sclerosis onset typically occurred approximately ten years later. The risk of developing multiple sclerosis later in life was 32 times higher after having experienced Epstein-Barr infection during young adulthood. Levels of neurofilament light chain were higher among the military personnel who had experienced Epstein-Barr infection.

These findings suggest that Epstein-Barr virus is the causal factor in the development of multiple sclerosis and underscore the need for developing vaccines against the virus. Although there is no cure for multiple sclerosis, evidence suggests that the fasting-mimicking diet may be beneficial in treating the condition. Learn about the fasting-mimicking diet in this episode featuring Dr. Valter Longo.

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