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Handb Clin Neurol. 2014;122:231-66. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-52001-2.00010-8.

The epidemiology of multiple sclerosis: insights to disease pathogenesis.

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Department of Neurology, University of California, San Francisco, USA. Electronic address:


The purpose of studying the epidemiology of multiple sclerosis (MS) is twofold. First, it is important to understand clearly the natural history of the illness in order to assist patients in making decisions about their future with respect to issues such as family planning, the importance of securing lifelong healthcare, their ability to get and maintain employment, and making appropriate choices of therapy for their particular circumstances. This is not to suggest that, even with the best possible information, the ultimate prognosis for any individual can be predicted with absolute accuracy. It cannot. Nevertheless, accurate information can be very helpful both to reassure patients that many individuals with MS do remarkably well in the long term (perhaps, especially, with current and future therapies) and also to empower individuals with respect to their ability to make their own life choices. Second, and arguably the more important purpose for studying the epidemiology of MS, is to gain insights to the underlying causes of the disease. Indeed, if the principal mechanisms of disease pathogenesis were to be understood clearly, then it might be possible to entertain notions of either a cure for existing disease or the primary prevention of future disease. Much of our current understanding of disease pathogenesis, as discussed in other chapters of this volume, has been derived from basic science investigations of animal models of MS such as experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), and these models have provided considerable insight both to the complexity of the mammalian immune system and to the mechanisms underlying its dysfunction in inflammatory autoimmune conditions. Nevertheless, MS is a disease of humans without any known, naturally occurring, counterpart in any nonhuman species. For this reason, the clues to disease pathogenesis provided by a study of basic epidemiologic facts regarding MS (and by a systematic consideration of their implications) are essential to a comprehensive understanding of the human illness we call MS.


EBV; Epstein Barr virus; MS; Multiple sclerosis; clinical; epidemiology; gender; genetics; incidence; infection; mortality; natural history; pathogenesis; presentation; prevalence; sex; smoking; stress; susceptibility; trauma; vitamin D

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