MADISON For more than 30 years, scientists have known that multiple sclerosis (MS) is much more common in higher latitudes than in the tropics. Because sunlight is more abundant near the equator, many researchers have wondered if the high levels of vitamin D engendered by sunlight could explain this unusual pattern of prevalence.
Vitamin D may reduce the symptoms of MS, says Hector DeLuca, Steenbock Research Professor of Biochemistry at University of Wisconsin-Madison, but in a study published in PNAS this week, he and first author Bryan Becklund suggest that the ultraviolet portion of sunlight may play a bigger role than vitamin D in controlling MS.
Multiple sclerosis is a painful neurological disease caused by a deterioration in the nerve's electrical conduction; an estimated 400,000 people have the disabling condition in the United States. In recent years, it's become clear the patients' immune systems are destroying the electrical insulation on the nerve fibers.
The ultraviolet (UV) portion of sunlight stimulates the body to produce vitamin D, and both vitamin D and UV can regulate the immune system and perhaps slow MS. But does the immune regulation result directly from the UV, indirectly from the creation of vitamin D, or both?
The study was designed to distinguish the role of vitamin D and UV light in explaining the high rate of MS away from the equator, says DeLuca, a world authority on vitamin D.
"Since the 1970s, a lot of people have believed that sunlight worked through vitamin D to reduce MS," says DeLuca. "It's true that large doses of the active form of vitamin D can block the disease in the animal model. That causes an unacceptably high level of calcium in the blood, but we know that people at the equator don't have this high blood calcium, even though they have a low incidence of MS. So it seems that something other than vitamin D could explain this geographic relationship."
|Contact: Hector DeLuca|
University of Wisconsin-Madison