Sunday, August 3, 2008
One person I met at the MS Bike Tour is from Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Site, and home to the Bluenose, which graces most Canadian dimes. This guy's name is Larry and he has MS. He also has the largest bike tour team, I suspect in the world, but at least in Atlantic Canada. Larry is somewhat like myself in that he NEEDS to know what causes MS. He spends a lot of time researching MS and has drawn a few conclusions about the cause, but nothing that can be substantiated at this point in time.
Larry has a specific idea about the cause of MS, and while it may have a bit of merit for some people it doesn't hold for all people with MS. And therein lies the biggest problem for solving this puzzle.
When a plane is flying, there are a number of people responsible for keep it in the air. Pilots, ground crews, maintenance crews, air traffic controllers, meteorologists, and flight attendants to name just a few. If one person fails at their job, there are a handful of other folks or machines there to catch the mistake - usually. (For a truly seat-gripping story, check out the Gimli Glider. It is a perfect example of back-up systems and back-up people all failing at their jobs.)
Just like flying planes, our bodies have back-up systems and compensatory ones to keep us working. The human body is an amazing organism. Our brains are the most complex part of our bodies. We have back up systems, to compensate for when things go wrong, or we have ways of adapting to a physical change, and we also have healing mechanisms. If we go blind, other senses become heightened, not because of some instantaneous change in our sensory abilities but because of the increased use of them. As Lisa would tell you, practice makes perfect - or at least makes it a little better. So lack of eyesight is compensated for by improved hearing. Similarly, if you lose the ability to feel (say with your fingers, as happened to me) you become more visually vigilant in assessing your surroundings in order to avoid dangers or accidents.
The very fact that people recover from debilitating events like stroke is proof that the human brain has compensatory abilities. A stroke is the death of brain cells and we know that once something dies that's the end of the road. Yet, people recover abilities that should have been lost forever. That's because the brain cells have the ability to make new connections and go around the dead parts.
So we have backup systems and compensatory ones. Plus we have our own "ground crews" in our brain trying to repair damage. How amazing is that?
If we lack the appropriate amount of calcium in our diet, the body takes it from our bones and teeth. Once a month and during pregnancy, many women "crave" certain nutrients and will ingest copious amounts of whatever it is they are craving (my ex used to come home with a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips once a month and just say "Eat these" because my behaviour -PMS- indicated my body's salt reserve was low). Our bodies tell us when there is something amiss, whether it's a nutrient imbalance or damage to our skin or our hair falling out in fistfulls. Sometimes it's fairly easy to fix what ever's wrong. (Rickets is almost unheard of in the developing world because of the addition of Vitamin D to milk. Simple solution.) But in the case of MS it's not easy to fix.
MS involves the most complex system in the human body, the Central Nervous System. A "perfect storm" of events is what leads to MS: genetics and environment (at least that's how we understand it right now). We can't just add a single nutrient or chemical to our diets to prevent this disease. We also can't just take one away because all nutrients and chemicals in our bodies have multiple roles, similar to back-up or compensatory roles. So what's a researcher to do?
As in the investigation of the Gimli Glider, a number of systems have to be examined. Our immune system has to be looked at, as it affects the CNS. The CNS has to be examined as it affects the immune system. The lymphatic system has to be examined as it affects the immune system. Our digestive system must be examined as that is how we get the nutrients needed for the other systems. You get the idea.
Because of the apparent complexity of MS, the solution should also be complex. Notice I say apparent. Looks can be deceiving or as Shakepeare was fond of pointing out, "Things are not always as they appear ". I believe that once we have examined the role of all the systems in MS, it will be an elegant, simple cause leading to an equally elegant, simple solution. I believe that Larry is on the right track, looking for one specific cause. And it doesn't hurt to have more people looking into this, each with their own idea.