Why Inflammatory Bowel Disease Is Like Multiple Sclerosis
Inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis may seem worlds apart, but a new study points out a relationship that may or may not surprise you.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system and damages the neurons (nerve cells), resulting in numerous related physical and mental symptoms. However, now researchers are also saying that multiple sclerosis is like inflammatory bowel disease as well.
Why? How can a disease characterized by inflammation of the intestinal tract be like MS? The researchers as Lund University in Sweden have come up with several findings, based on their animal study, to support this idea.
MS and inflammation
One common characteristic is inflammation. In multiple sclerosis, the immune system’s attack on the neurons in the brain and spinal cord results in damage to myelin (the protective covering on nerves) and inflammation. The result is interference in the transport of nerve signals and thus sensory, motor, and other symptoms such as blurry vision, loss of sensation, dizziness, spasticity, and difficulty walking.
In inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., Crohns disease, ulcerative colitis) involve chronic inflammation of part or all of the digestive tract and mainly along the intestinal tract. Depending on which part of the digestive tract is affected, symptoms can include bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fatigue, ulcers on or in the intestinal wall, weight loss, and pain.
In the new study, the investigators used a model of MS in mice and discovered that during the early stage of the disease, the intestinal tract of the mice showed inflammation and changes in the function of the mucous membrane that protects the intestines.
These findings are indicators of leaky gut syndrome, a condition that is commonly seen in inflammatory bowel disease and some other autoimmune conditions. In leaky gut (aka increased intestinal permeability), the intestines are unable to adequately filter nutrients and other factors through their membrane walls.
In other words, the intestinal walls allow substances such as bacteria, undigested food, and cell waste to “leak” through into the bloodstream. According to Shahram Lavasani, one of the study’s authors, inflammation of the mucous membranes in the intestines and leaky gut were seen in their MS models “before clinical symptoms of MS are discernible” and that “the inflammation increases as the disease develops.”
More specifically, the investigators observed an increase in the levels of inflammatory T-cells (Th1 and Th17) and a decline in immunosuppressive cells (regulatory T-cells). These changes are characteristic of inflammatory bowel diseases.
Dr. Lavasani also noted that their findings support the idea “that a damaged intestinal barrier can prevent the body ending an autoimmune reaction in the normal manner, leading to a chronic disease such as MS.” Although this discovery does not provide any immediate relief for people living with multiple sclerosis, it does shed light on what occurs during the development of the disease and will hopefully eventually result in better treatments. Intestinal problems are common among people with MS, but the new findings offer new information that could help researchers get a better handle on the issue and address it more efficiently.