When most people picture the immune system they usually think of white blood cells patrolling the blood stream, seeking out and destroying bacteria and other foreign invaders. What they don’t usually think about are the trillions of bacteria and other organisms that live inside our gastrointestinal system, and actually help to keep us healthy. Known as the gut’s microbiome, these bacteria and organisms happily coexist within our bodies and play a major supporting role in our immune system. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that up to 80% of the immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract.
Given that the gut’s microbiome is such a huge component of the immune system, researchers have long sought out a connection between it and autoimmune diseases. Links between an imbalance in the gut’s microbiome and autoimmune ailments such as type I diabetes and Crohn’s disease have already been discovered, so we know that the microbiome influences our immune system and can affect overall health. Recently, MS researchers have begun to investigate the microbiome’s role in the autoimmune destruction of myelin in MS. Scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) studied people living with MS, and found that they are deficient in one specific type of microbe, Butyricimonas, that suppresses immune-mediated inflammation. They also discovered that people with MS tend to have higher levels of a microbe called Archaea, which can trigger inflammation.
Researchers are so intrigued about the link between the gut’s microbiome and MS that they formed the MS Microbiome Consortium (MSMC). The MSMC is a multidisciplinary collaboration founded by leading MS and microbiome investigators. Their goal is to identify the exact relationship between the gut’s microbiome, and the immune response in MS. They also hope to figure out ways to favorably manipulate the microbiome by observing how it’s changed by genetics, geography, diet, and lifestyle modifications.
In 2014 the MSMC presented interesting data showing that the disease-modifying drug Copaxone influences the behavior of bacteria in the gut. Now researchers are trying to figure out what exact effects MS medications have on the microbiome, and if the microbiome can affect a person’s response to treatments. They are also researching specific probiotic agents and techniques to foster a more favorable microbiome in the gut. In all likelihood, a combination of genetic and environmental influences are responsible for triggering MS. It would be exciting to identify exactly what those triggers are so that we can more effectively treat, and even prevent, MS in the future.
- Could Multiple Sclerosis Begin in the Gut? (Scientific American)
- Does Multiple Sclerosis Start with Faulty Gut Bacteria? (Healthline)
- The MS Microbiome Consortium (MSMC)
- Finding Solutions at the World’s Largest MS Meeting (MS Connection Blog)
Stephanie Buxhoeveden MSCN, FNP-BC Stephanie is a nurse practitioner who was diagnosed with MS at age 25. Shortly after being diagnosed she realized she could use her experiences as a patient to make a difference in the lives of others, so she became a multiple sclerosis certified nurse. Stephanie completed her master’s in nursing at Rutgers University, and now specializes in the care of people with MS and other neurological diseases.
Her blog, www.justkeepsmyelin.com, offers a unique perspective on MS from both a healthcare provider’s point of view, and through the eyes of a person living with the disease every day. Her mission is to bring compassion, humor, and a deeper understanding of MS to anyone who reads it. She also writes for MultipleSclerosis.net, MSFocus Magazine, serves as a District Activist Leader for the National MS Society and is on the membership committee of iConquerMS.gut bacteria, microbiome, probiotics and ms