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Neuroinflammation and Multiple Sclerosis

Learn about how neuroinflammation is linked to multiple sclerosis and why it is the focus in our new research initiative.

Did you know that inflammation across the entire central nervous system plays a major role in many brain diseases, including multiple sclerosis (MS)? Neuroinflammation — swelling in the brain and spinal cord — is involved in everything from the nerve damage that causes MS to the worsening of symptoms over time.

For people with MS, neuroinflammation plays a significant role in the demyelination process — the process where the protective coating around nerves (myelin) breaks down and causes the movement symptoms of MS.

Because of neuroinflammation’s connection to nearly every brain disease and many bodily processes, the American Brain Foundation has launched a new research initiative in partnership with a number of disease-specific research and patient advocacy organizations, including the National MS Society. The initiative aims to better understand neuroinflammation as an underlying mechanism of brain disease and brain health.

What Is Neuroinflammation?

Inflammation is the immune system’s natural response to injury, illness, or infection. Neuroinflammation is an inflammatory response that takes place in the brain and spinal cord. This inflammation can be a protective response, but in the case of many brain diseases, it is the result of a faulty autoimmune response that causes damage to the brain and nervous system. 

Research shows that prolonged or excessive inflammation may be a key driver in the onset and progression of several neurologic diseases and disorders, including MS. In people with MS, nerve damage takes place in the brain and can extend to the rest of the central nervous system. Treating inflammation is important because it may have an impact on a person’s symptoms and disease progression.

Is MS Caused by Inflammation in the Brain?

Not exactly. MS is believed to be an autoimmune disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. The disease affects 2.5 million people worldwide and about 1 million Americans, and as many as 10,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. It is a chronic disease with unpredictable attacks.

While inflammation is part of the autoimmune response linked to the disease, scientists don’t know exactly what causes MS. While there is evidence that the Epstein-Barr virus is associated with an increased risk of MS, scientists still don’t know for sure whether certain viruses can trigger the disease, how to prevent it, what predicts the course of the disease, or when an attack will happen.

What they do know is that people with MS experience inflammation in the brain and spinal cord, and this inflammation contributes to demyelination — damage to myelin, the protective coating around nerves.

Microglia (immune cells in the central nervous system) are often present at sites of demyelination. Research now shows these immune cells may play an active role in the process of demyelination in MS. Activated microglia can contribute to neuroinflammation by releasing substances that affect surrounding cells.

When demyelination occurs, it disrupts communication between the brain and other parts of the body. This interruption is what causes the symptoms of MS, such as muscle weakness, fatigue, and balance problems. People with MS often experience distinct attacks, where symptoms get worse and then subside, which creates unpredictability for those living with this brain disease.

Over time, high levels of neuroinflammation may accelerate brain aging and contribute to the progression of brain disease, drawing a connection between neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration.

Treating Nervous System Inflammation May Reduce MS Symptoms

Scientists have established links between an autoimmune response, neuroinflammation, demyelination, and neurodegeneration. More research will clarify exactly how these factors are connected and how targeting them can lead to better treatments for MS.

“MS, we think, is an autoimmune disease, and we have a number of autoimmune diseases,” says Raymond Roos, MD, previous member of the Foundation’s research advisory committee and the Director of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis clinic and the Marjorie and Robert E. Straus Professor in Neurological Science. “I think if we understand MS, it will bring us closer to understanding many autoimmune and neuroinflammatory diseases.”

Understanding neuroinflammation better can help researchers and doctors know where, when, and how to increase or decrease inflammation within the central nervous system. Regulating inflammation could improve treatments for many different brain diseases, including MS.

While there is no cure for MS, researchers are exploring how to reduce the immune response that triggers neuroinflammation as a way to improve symptoms and slow the disease’s progression. A recent study identified an immune system regulator in the gut microbiome that may contribute to the autoimmune response and inflammation that are characteristics of MS. By targeting neuroinflammation, researchers hope to make early interventions that prevent or slow damage to the nerves in the first place.

The topic of neuroinflammation is central to the American Brain Foundation’s 2025 Cure One Cure Many Award. Our new neuroinflammation initiative provides funding to the world’s top researchers to pursue innovative approaches to brain disease diagnosis and treatment. With its unprecedented, cross-industry collaboration, this research initiative promises to transform the future of brain health.

The American Brain Foundation is committed to funding research for MS and other neurodegenerative diseases. That’s because finding a cure for one brain disease will lead to cures for many others. Join us in our fight against brain disease—donate today to fund life-changing research.