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Multiple Sclerosis: Why it Occurs and What Can Be Done

Multiple Sclerosis: Why it Occurs and What Can Be Done
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  • 0:07 Slowing Down…
  • 0:46 What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
  • 1:14 Why Does Multiple…
  • 3:03 Clinical Signs,…
  • 4:13 Treatment of Multiple…
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson explores multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects many people around the world. We will look into why it may occur, what the common signs and symptoms are, how it may be diagnosed, and the treatments that may be employed.

Slowing Down Electrical Conduction

If you live in an old house or have an old car, then you're undoubtedly aware that one of the problems that begins to occur over time is the inevitable breakdown of wiring. If the wires break down, either because they literally break or because the insulation cracks apart, then electrical signals cannot be transmitted as effectively, if at all. This will lead the house light to flutter, the fridge to stop working, and the car not to start. In almost exactly the same way, your nervous system's electrical conductive capacity may break down due to a serious disease.

What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

This condition is called multiple sclerosis. It's a disease of the central nervous system that results in improper communication within this system and between it and other parts of your body. Unlike old wiring in a house, this disease affects mainly young adults, in the prime of their life, usually between the ages of 20-40. It also affects women at least twice as often as men.

Why Does Multiple Sclerosis Occur?

What initially causes this disease to occur is unknown. We believe that everything from genetic predispositions, to viruses, to lifestyle factors may influence the development of MS, but it's far from being certain. What is more certain is that an autoimmune component, where your own body attacks itself, is at play in this disease.

For example, protein molecules called antibodies and a type of white blood cell in your immune system, called a T-Helper lymphocyte have been implicated in the destruction of the myelin sheath. This is an electrically insulating layer wrapped around a nerve cell's axon, which increases the speed of electrical conduction.

You can think of a nerve cell as a chip on a motherboard and the axon as this chip's wiring coming off of it. If the insulating layer of the wire is destroyed, then it doesn't matter what signal the chip sends out since it can't be transmitted properly. So, any nerve cell with a damaged insulating layer will have a hard time quickly communicating something it needs to another nerve cell due to the T-Helper cell.

This process, the process of destroying a nerve cell's insulating myelin sheath, is called demyelination. Long term attack by T-cells on this myelin will result in scar tissue formations around the axon. Imagine if someone repeatedly cut you over and over again, you'd develop a bunch of scars on your body. Similarly, the T-cells essentially cut the myelin sheath apart leading to the formation of scar-like plaques. The scars are just a bunch of shoddy repair work on the insulating layer, like someone taking some electrical tape and lightly wrapping it around a wire and hoping for the best.

Clinical Signs, Symptoms, and Diagnostics

Since the electrical conduction between nerve cells is compromised, your nervous system cannot do its job well. That job includes the coordination of everything from muscle movement to memory formation and beyond. That's why the signs and symptoms of MS are so broad. They usually start off with vision problems and lead to muscle weakness, difficulty with balance and coordination, and paralysis. Other signs include sensory depravations, such as numbness and hearing loss, as well as difficulty speaking, dizziness, and cognitive difficulties.

While there is no single test that can diagnose multiple sclerosis, several tests can be conducted to confirm this disease. For example, performing an MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, of your brain and spinal cord can reveal the loss of myelin associated with this condition. A spinal tap that assess the fluid bathing your central nervous system may find elevated numbers of certain antibodies involved in this disease. Finally, a test, called an evoked potential test, may be used to assess electrical activity in the brain. Problems in electrical conductivity noticed by this latter test can clue a doctor into a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

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