Hand-Me-Down Genes: Does MS Run in the Family?

Hand-Me-Down Genes: Does MS Run in the Family?

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Readers who follow my blog know that I have a family history of Multiple Sclerosis. My Aunt Loretta, my dad’s sister, was diagnosed with MS in the 1970s. During that time there was little medical treatment that could help her.  She eventually died due to complications of Multiple Sclerosis in 1981, when I was only four years old. When I was diagnosed with MS in 2005, I could hear the whispers of my family as I was laying in my hospital bed saying, “this looks like what happened to Loretta.”

I could hear the whispers in-between drug induced dreams. My story seemed too similar to hers.  Both of us diagnosed in our late twenties, numb from the waist down, and unable to go to the bathroom or walk. The more I thought about my Aunt Loretta, the more I believed that her life was my fate.

My readers often ask about my Aunt Loretta and if I believe that genetics played a role in the onset of my Multiple Sclerosis. The truth is that I do believe that there is a genetic component. However, having MS run in the family doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll develop Multiple Sclerosis. One of the reasons that MS is so hard to find a cure for is that there is no single cause for the disease. According to the National MS Society, there are four major theories to how a person can develop the disease.

Four Theories of how you Develop MS

  1. Immunologic – It is generally accepted that MS results from an abnormal immune response where the myelin (fatty cell insulation) is broken down exposing the nerve fiber in the brain, spine or optic nerves. This leads to disability. Recent studies have determined which immune cells are attacking the myelin, which may lead us closer to figuring out why these cells become abnormal. The closer we come to the researchers cracking that code, the closer we become to understanding the cause of MS.
  2. Environment – The interesting thing about MS is that there are definite environmental factors. The majority of MS cases happen the further you get from the equator. Some scientist have correlated the distance from the equator to the lack of sun exposure and therefor lower levels of vitamin D, which is a natural immune suppressant. There are also MS Clusters, or areas with a higher instance of MS then the surrounding areas. The causes of these MS Clusters are unknown. Could it be diet or industrial toxins in the air or water?
  3. Infectious – Viruses we acquire in childhood could factor into an onset of Multiple Sclerosis or trigger the abnormal immune response that later leads to MS. According to the National MS Society, “More than a dozen viruses and bacteria, including measles, canine distemper, human herpes virus-6, Epstein-Barr, and Chlamydia pneumonia have been or are being investigated to determine if they are involved in the development of MS.” It is important to note that none of the diseases listed above have been directly linked to the development of MS.
  4. Genetic – The final theory is the genetic component. Most researchers agree that if you have relatives in your immediate family with the disease that you have a higher predisposition to developing the disease. That doesn’t mean that you necessarily will develop the disease. According to Healthline.com, “an identical twin only has a 30 percent chance of developing MS if their twin has the disease”.  If you are experiencing symptoms and are concerned because you have in the family, definitely check out the Healthline.com article as it shows early warning signs of MS.

In my case, I believe that I was genetically predisposed to developing MS because of my Aunt Loretta. However, my brother and sister do not have MS and neither do any of Loretta’s children or grandchildren. I am the only one in the family to wear these hand-me-down genes. To me, that means that there was some other factor that triggered my genetic predisposition.

The environmental theory makes sense as I grew up in the greater Boston area, which is far from the equator and chronically cloudy. Blood tests have shown that I have a vitamin D deficiency and my neurologist encourages me to take vitamin D daily. The infectious theory could be true as well. As my Veterans and Multiple Sclerosis Blog suggested there has been evidence that the vaccinations one receives in boot camp can contribute to an onset of Multiple Sclerosis later on in life. For the Immunologic theory, my belief is that once the Transverse Myelitis happened to me the abnormalities in my immune system continued the MS attacks and led to my Optic Neuritis and cognitive relapses.

I do believe that there is a genetic component to being diagnosed with MS. I also think that the predisposition does not mean that you will develop MS. There are other factors that make up the complex puzzle of what causes Multiple Sclerosis. The good news is that today there are treatments and research that was not available back when my Aunt Loretta was diagnosed. Even though we share the same genes, I no longer believe we share the same fate.








11 thoughts on “Hand-Me-Down Genes: Does MS Run in the Family?

  1. This helps clear up some of the mystery Matt, thank you. Both me and my half-sister have MS and both of us were diagnosed around the time that we turned 40. We grew up with a grandmother who was constantly exhausted and sick with no known cause. It was thought in the family that she may be a hypochondriac. Back then, in our small town, it is highly unlikely the local doctor would have tested her for MS. But now my sister and I find ourselves saying things our grandmother used to say and we can’t help but think she was struggling with MS and didn’t know it. One day these mysteries may be cleared but until then I guess all we can do is share our experiences with each other. Thank you for doing that!

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Yvonne! I wonder how many people were like your grandmother. I bet it wasn’t uncommon back to go undiagnosed.

  2. This is interesting. I have tried to trace my auto-immune disease’s throughout my family and found some interesting info. My second cousin, has both type 1 diabetes and RRMS, like myself. Though unrelated, my grandfather and my cousin have diabetes. My mother, has Crohns disease, and upon a recent visit to my neurologist, here in Chicago, he informed me that both MS and Crohn’s share the same genetic auto-immune makeup/gene. So, it is interesting and will be informative as to what everyone else thinks/says. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Andrew! That is a great point that MS and Crohn’s disease are related. Some MS treatments, like Tysabri, are approved to help Crohn’s as well. Chicago is one of those northern, low light city with a heavy industrial tradition. I wonder if some environmental factor could be at play as well.

  3. There are 3 other females in my family that have MS. My Daughter had a diagnosis of Optic Neurtis she lost complete vision in one eye,my 2nd cousin was in a wheelchair but know she is standing,walking,& driving,also my first cousin. Yes it does run in families but I don’t know how far back it started.

    1. Sorry to hear about your daughter, Linda. Did she get her vision back? It definitely sounds like your family has had to deal with MS more than most. Hope you are well my friend.

  4. My sister also had MS. 7 people within 2 blocks of where I grew up have/had MS. I have always heard that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.

  5. I had optic neuritis in 82 which i was given steroids and it went away after treatment..My Gene pool has lots of auto-immune, Hypothyroid,pernicious anemia, mom and brother have the hypo and dad had the pernicious anemia. But no MS. Nero in Chicago thinks i had MS but he thinks that it was dormant for years. Not taking care of my B12 deficiency. Vit D was not in question. Mind boggling.Stress, I think stress played a part and i was having a Flare-Up. So he thinks we caught it early,,,

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