People who are afflicted with multiple sclerosis (MS) but are not yet exhibiting its symptoms may have higher chances at battling the disease when it is detected early on, before its onset.

A new study supported by the German Ministry for Education and Research has analyzed blood samples from 16 blood donors who were later diagnosed with MS and blood samples from 16 people who did not develop the disease. The samples were collected two to nine months before the participants first experienced symptoms of MS.

The researchers looked for an antibody to KIR4.1. An antibody is a protein produced by the body's immune system when it is exposed to and detects harmful substances. The 16 healthy participants tested negative for the antibody to KIR4.1. However, of the 16 who later contracted MS, seven were tested positive for the antibody, two were at the borderline, and the remaining seven did not register the antibody in their system.

The researchers found KIR4.1 antibodies several years before the first attack of MS in those who were later diagnosed with MS. None of the people without the disease had the antibody.

"If our results can be replicated in larger populations, our findings may help to detect MS earlier in a subgroup of patients," said study author Viola Biberacher, MD, with Technical University in Munich, Germany, in a press release. "Finding the disease before symptoms appear means we can better prepare to treat and possibly even prevent those symptoms. This finding also demonstrates that the antibody development to the KIR4.1 protein, a protein found in some people with MS, precedes the clinical onset of disease suggesting a role of the autoantibody in how the disease develops."

MS is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that affects over 2.3 million people all over the world. MS damages the myelin, which is the protective insulation surrounding the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. A ravaged myelin leads to the development of hardened tissue which interfere with the transmission of nerve signals within the central nervous system. Symptoms vary, and this condition can shorten an individual's life, although some people with MS live a normal or near-normal lifespan.

The various symptoms can include abnormal fatigue, episodes of numbness and tingling, loss of balance and muscle coordination, slurred speech, tremors, stiffness, and bladder problems. In severe cases, symptoms include partial or complete paralysis, and difficulties with vision, cognition, speech, and elimination, and these symptoms can become permanent.

Most people with MS are diagnosed when they are aged between 20 and 50 years, although those as young as 2 and as old as 75 have been known to develop the disease as well.

"Finding the disease before symptoms appear means we can better prepare to treat and possibly even prevent those symptoms," said Dr. Biberacher.

The findings of the study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 66th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, April 26 to May 3, 2014.

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