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Med Hypotheses. 2008;70(4):819-25. Epub 2007 Sep 21.

Hygiene hypothesis: innate immunity, malaria and multiple sclerosis.

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  • 1Institute of Clinical Neurology, University of Sassari, Viale San Pietro, 10, 07100 Sassari, Italy.


The establishment of new hygienic conditions plays a role in the appearance of autoimmunity in "westernalised" countries. Consistently, but still unconvincingly, several epidemiological and immunogenetic evidences link the disappearance of malaria with the increase of multiple sclerosis (MS) in Sardinia, insular Italy. To this purpose, we have made an attempt to build a relationship between malaria disappearance and MS under the light of the hygiene hypothesis. This relationship has taken into account the MS frequency increase soon after malaria eradication in Sardinia, the present malaria endemism in Africa, the innate immune system activity here represented by Chitotriosidase (Chit), an hydrolytic enzyme produced by macrophages, and an unproductive polymorphism of Chit gene (CHIT1) as a measure of the genetic weight of Plasmodium-related immunity in these populations. Data were derived from both experimental results specifically designed for this study and other data obtained from the available literature. The experimental and the hystorical-epidemiological findings concur to indicate that whilst in Africa CHIT1 mutation is rare and MS incidence is very low due to unmodified parasitic influence and hygienic conditions, in Sardinia a relationships between CHIT1 mutation, plasma Chit activity and MS prevalence rate is detected, even to a higher extent compared to Sicily, area at former lower rate of malaria endemy. Upon such a basis, we have found convincing argumentations that, at least in part, MS has increased over the last four decades in Sardinia also because of the eradication of malaria, 50 years ago. This infectious disease that run for centuries in Sardinia, besides well documented enzyme deficiencies and red cell pathologies, have left an abnormal macrophage reactivity against Plasmodium falciparum. As a result, some Sardinian individuals secrete abnormally high levels of mediators of the innate immunity, relics of former protective anti-malaria infection, in response to new environmental factors. Therefore, MS, an immune-conditioned pathology of the central nervous system has been subject to an unexplained epidemiological increase in the last few decades in Sardinia because cells of the innate immune system, immuno-genetically selected over the centuries in response to widespread P. falciparum malaria, have kept the tendency to over-respond to triggering factors even after the disappearance of malaria. This hypothesis may have an influence in re-directing clinicians toward a innate immunity-based rather than an antigen specific-based new MS therapies.

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