Is MS Hereditary?

Community Member

Like many people when first diagnosed with MS, I asked the question, "Will my children get MS?" I was told no. That was the late 80s, however, when there was a general belief that MS is not genetic or hereditary. There have been exciting breakthroughs since then.

The International MS Genetics Consortium (IMSGC) was formed in 2003 with the specific aim of answering the question "Is MS hereditary?" The IMSGC, along with other research organizations, now have the luxury of working with new genetic technology and applying it to MS. In July 2007, two genes were identified that influence the risk of developing MS. Only one gene had been identified previously, and that was in the 1970s..  How exciting.

What does this mean? The Consortium used thousands of subjects and billions of data points to eventually provide information for an atlas of common genetic variants that affect susceptibility to MS.  This can lead to even more new research possibilities.

The cause of MS is still unknown. This new research has made It clear MS has a complex genetic background, and the new theory is that MS is a combination of genes, environment, and immunology. As of November 2010, there have been seven MS genome screens that indicate there are many other genetic risk associations. More research is needed, and much of it is underway, to identify all of the genes that influence MS. Genetics variation determines susceptibility to developing this disease and even the timing of symptom onset. Further, genes to some extent determine the course of the disease as well as response to treatment.

Let's look at another perspective. I read an article in the summer of 2006 that said research indicates that men with MS are twice as likely as women with MS to pass it on to their children. The article continued with a suggestion that further research could confirm this finding.

In the summer of 2007, results of a much larger study were published in the same journal, Neurology, and stated some interesting points.

After many years of research, it is now clear that MS is influenced by family gene history. Equally important is the fact that, while genetics are a factor, environmental and immunological factors are also influential.

What have we learned about genetic influence in MS?

Characteristic Risk of MS
General population 1/10 of 1%
Nuclear family member has MS 1% - 3% (10 to 30 times higher than norm)
Twin 4% (40 times higher than norm)
Identical twin 30% (300 times higher than norm)

With the research being done today, I can truly say I have hope. The treatments being developed are becoming targeted and more effective. Not too many years ago, we didn't have treatments, but now there are choices. There is something new almost every day. The IMSGC has launched, just recently, a Risk in Families program meant to find the risk in children and then target a treatment especially for them.

When my children and grandchildren ask if they will get MS, I can tell them with confidence they will not face the same monster Mom and Nana first met many years ago.

"Other things may change us, but we start and end with family" ~ Anthony Brandt

Notes and Links:
International MS Genetics Consortium (IMSGC), funded and supported by the NMSS, Penates Foundation, NIH, the UK Wellcome Trust  
Medscape - Abstract of article, "Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?"
Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center - Harvard's collaborative center, article on IMSGC gonomic study

Bonanza - article I wrote when the Consortium reported finding the two genes common to MSers, includes active links to articles explaining genetic breakthrough

Last summer I wrote an article about research saying the NMSS was looking for families with multiple cases of MS. As a supporter of the IMSG Consortium, people who answered this call are included in this research.

Here is an audio file of results for April 2010 IMSGC meeting - 57 min