Page last updated at 17:48 GMT, Sunday, 4 November 2007

Seeking answers to origin of MS

By Elizabeth Quigley
BBC Radio Scotland's The Investigation

Elizabeth Quigley
"More than seven years ago I was told I had MS."

As a journalist it's my job to ask questions and try to find out answers, so when I heard that Scotland has the highest rate of Multiple Sclerosis in the world I obviously wanted to know why.

And that's exactly what BBC Radio Scotland's Investigation is all about.

But for me this investigation is more than just out of professional interest.

I have a very personal interest in discovering why there is this curious connection between the country I was born and grew up in and MS - more than seven years ago I was told I had MS.

Scotland has a very special place in the world of MS.

The only thing that's certain about MS is it's unpredictability

It is generally accepted this country has the highest rate in the world and there are an estimated 10,500 people coping with MS in Scotland.

It's the most common disabling neurological disease among young adults in Britain.

So what is it exactly?

Well here's the science bit ... something called myelin covers the nerve fibres of the central nervous system - but in MS it's damaged and that means messages between the brain and other parts of the body are disrupted.

That can cause a range of possible symptoms - fatigue, balance and mobility problems, weakness, numbness and speech problems - the only thing that's certain about MS is it's unpredictability.

Latitude link

But why is it so prevalent here in Scotland? Well the simple answer is - no-one knows.

Across the UK about one in every 800 people has MS.

But in Scotland about one person in every 500 has MS.

It's far more common here and in countries like Canada, Scandinavia and Ireland than it is in countries nearer the equator.

MS can often quite literally be mapped along lines of latitude.

Brain scan of MS sufferer
MS affects messages between the brain and other parts of the body

It's more common in higher latitudes but confusingly that's not the only factor in explaining why and where MS occurs.

You can't catch MS - it's not contagious - and you can't directly inherit MS, but genetic factors do seem to play some kind of role.

Another theory is that it could be down to a virus that triggers the onset of MS.

Diet and climate could have something to do with it but basically no-one has a definitive answer.

Another thing we don't know is exactly how many people have MS in Scotland.

But that looks set to change with the development of a register of everyone who has the condition.

New centre

The MS Society in Scotland has begun setting up just such a database along with the NHS in Scotland.

An MS register has already been established in Canada.

For a quarter of a century clinicians there have been gathering details of just about everyone diagnosed with MS - and keeping a national register.

Keeping a register of who has MS could be crucial in solving the puzzle of the condition - as could a brand new centre in Edinburgh - the MS Society Edinburgh University Translational Research centre.

It'll be the UK's first ever major research centre into the condition - and it's been funded thanks largely to a substantial donation from the author J K Rowling, whose mother had MS.

We know where MS occurs in the world, we know what it is but the answer to the question why is still elusive.

The Investigation was on Morning Extra on BBC Radio Scotland from 0850 GMT - 0930 GMT on Monday


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