Affecting 1 in 1,000 people, multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system attacks its own brain and spinal cord. Northern Europe has the highest prevalence of MS in the world.
The new research published in Nature draws on analysis of the DNA of ancient human bones and teeth held in museum collections across Europe and Western Asia. It reveals that a major migration of pastoralist herders known as the Yamnaya people from from the Pontic Steppe (a region spanning parts of what are now Ukraine, South-West Russia and the West Kazakhstan) into Western Europe 5,000 years ago introduced genetic variants into the population.
These new variants provided an advantage to the people carrying them at the time, probably by providing protection against infectious diseases in their domesticated animals. In today's modern environment, however, these same genetic variants increase the risk of developing MS. To show this, the research team compared data held in a unique gene bank of ancient DNA to the UK Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing genetic, lifestyle and health information and biological samples from half a million UK participants. The research was funded by a €8M grant from the Lundbeck Foundation.
The new insights into the genetic factors behind MS are helping to demystify the disease, which is crucial, stresses co-author Professor Lars Fugger of the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine and Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford.