What is the impact of Vitamin D on the complicated course of MS?

Some general neurologists get away with not having to think too much about multiple sclerosis (MS). This is because they have an ‘MSologist‘ at hand to refer all their patients with ‘demyelination‘. Many general neurologists however care for people with MS because they do not have a ‘fallback guy‘ to do the heavy lifting for them. This therefore makes it imperative for neurologists to keep up with everything about this often disabling and distressing disorder.

MS prevalence map. By AdertOwn work and [1], CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
The management of MS is however very tricky, and it is challenging to get a grip of it all. This is partly because the clinical course is varied, and the diagnostic process tortuous. The patient first goes through an onerous retinue of tests which include an MRI, a lumbar puncture, evoked potentials, and a shedload of blood tests. This is all in a bid to secure the diagnosis and to exclude all possible MS mimics.

MRI scan. NIH Image Galley on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/30805879596

Then comes the head-scratching phase of determining if the patient actually fulfils the diagnostic criteria for MS, or if they just have clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) and radiologically isolated syndrome (RIS). To secure the diagnosis of MS, the neurologist turns to the McDonald criteria which stipulate dissemination in time and place of inflammatory events. As simple as this should be, this is no easy task at all. This is because, at different times, the criteria have meant different things to different people. The guidelines have also gone through several painful, and often confusing, iterations. Indeed the McDonald criteria have only recently been re-revised-to the delight of MSologists but the chagrin of the general neurologist!

Steampunk Time and Space Machine. Don Urban on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/donpezzano/3230179951

Once the diagnosis of relapsing remitting MS (RRMS) is reasonably established, the patient is taken through a guided tour of the ever-expanding available treatment options. These are typically to prevent relapses, but more recently to prevent disease progression as well. People with mild to moderate MS are nudged towards interferons, glatiramer acetate, dimethylfumarate, or terifluonamide. Those with more aggressive disease, on the other hand, are offered a menu of fingolimod, natalizumab, or alemtuzumab. Other newer agents include daclizumab and cladribine. And, just stepping into the arena, there is ocrelizumab for primary progressive (PPMS). Whichever option is chosen, the course of treatment is long, and it is fraught with risks such as infections and immune suppression.


Once the bigger questions have been settled, the neurologist then braces for the ‘minor’ questions her enlightened patients will ask. The easier questions relate to the treatment of symptoms, and some of the most vexing concern the role of Vitamin D deficiency. Such questions include, ‘Is vitamin D deficiency a cause of MS?‘, ‘Do people who are vitamin D deficient experience a worse outcome?‘, and ‘Should patients with MS be on Vitamin D supplementation?‘.

Pandora’s box. Michael Hensman on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mycael/3664900435

To attempt to resolve these questions I plunged into some of the literature on Vitamin D and MS. And this is like opening Pandora’s box. Here are some of the things I found.


Is MS associated with Vitamin D deficiency?

It therefore appears that there is an association of vitamin D deficiency with MS, but it is far from certain that this is a causative relationship. One hypothesis is that vitamin D deficiency is the outcome, rather than the cause, of MS. The deficiency presumably results becuase the very active immune system in people with MS mops up the body’s Vitamin D. This so-called reverse causation hypothesis asserts that vitamin D deficiency is a consumptive vitaminopathy

Sunshine Falls. Dawn Ellner on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/naturesdawn/4299041739

Does Vitamin D deficiency worsen MS progression?

There is therefore no single answer to this question, but the emerging consensus is that Vitamin D deficiency adversely affects the course of MS. 

Milk splash experiment. Endre majoros on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/boneball/24597145866

Should people with MS be on Vitamin D supplementation?

Even if Vitamin D deficiency doesn’t cause MS, the evidence suggests that it negatively influences the course of the disease.

Salmon salad nicoise. Keith McDuffee on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gudlyf/3609052894

What to do?

This is the million dollar question eloquently posed by a recent editorial in the journal Neurology titled Preventing multiple sclerosis: to (takevitamin D or not to (takevitamin D? The reasonable consensus is to encourage vitamin D replenishment to prevent MS, starting from preconception. It is also generally agreed that people with MS should be on vitamin D supplementation in the expectation that it will slow the disease activity.

A practical approach to Vitamin D replacement is the Barts MS team vitamin D supplementation recommendation. This is to start with 5,000IU/day vitamin D, and aim for a plasma level of 100-250 nmol/L. Depending on the level, the dose is then adjusted, up or down, to between 2-10,000IU/day. They also advise against giving calcium supplementation unless there is associated osteoporosis.

What is a general neurologist to do? To follow the prevailing trend, and hope it doesn’t change direction too soon!

Vitamin D Pills. Essgee51 on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sg51/5224823967


What are the remarkable drugs which have transformed the treatment of MS?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a common and blighting neurological disease. It frequently targets young people, often with disabling effects. It may affect any part of the central nervous system, and it manifests with relapsing or steadily progressive clinical features.

"Carswell-Multiple Sclerosis2" by derivative work: Garrondo (talk)Carswell-Multiple_Sclerosis.jpg: Robert Carswell (1793–1857) - Carswell-Multiple_Sclerosis.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
Carswell-Multiple Sclerosis2” by derivative work: Garrondo (talk)Carswell-Multiple_Sclerosis.jpg: Robert Carswell (1793–1857) – Carswell-Multiple_Sclerosis.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Research is improving our understanding of MS at a breathtaking pace. Just as one is getting comfortable with the status quo, a sudden paradigm shift occurs. This is the work of the men and women in white coats, labouring in dingy labs, peering down powerful microscopes, and scrutinising imaging scans-all in the drive to improve the care of people who suffer from this defiant disease. To avoid becoming dinosaurs, neurologists have to keep up with the rapid developments at the cutting-edge of multiple sclerosis.

Blade end of 'Cutting Edge', Sheaf Square. Robin Stott http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2894285
Blade end of ‘Cutting Edge’, Sheaf Square. Robin Stott http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2894285

MS research has enhanced our knowledge of all aspects of the disease. For example, we know a lot more about MS risk factors, as discussed in my previous post titled MS risk factors: the top 6. There is also a lot going on with drug development, as I addressed in my previous blog posts, The emerging progress from the world of MS, and Masitinib, a breakthrough drug shattering neurology boundaries. More importantly, there are many drugs, already in use, which have radically changed neurological practice in a very short time. In this blog post I will review 5 treatments which have already transformed the management of MS.

1. Monoclonal antibodies 

B0007277 Monoclonal antibodies. Anna Tanczos. Wellcome Images on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wellcomeimages/5814713820
B0007277 Monoclonal antibodies. Wellcome Images on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wellcomeimages/5814713820

It seems a long time ago now when the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) revolved just around interferons and steroids. Since then the monoclonal antibodies have changed the field radically. Drugs such as natalizumab and alemtuzumab are now mainstream, and many other ‘mabs’ have followed fast on their heels. Daclizumab is about to come into clinical practice soon, and ocrelizumab is full of promise for progressive MS, as discussed in this article in Medscape. With the floodgates now fully opened, other ‘mabs’ such as ofatumumab are trooping in fast. Unfortunately not all monoclonal antibodies are making the grade; an example is Opicinumab (anti LINGO-1), touted as a drug that boosts nerve signals, but which latest reports indicate failed to meet up to its high expectations.

2. Fingolimod

By Williamseanohlinger - Created with Spartan'10 softwareon my personal PC, Public Domain, Link
By Williamseanohlinger – Created with Spartan’10 softwareon my personal PC, Public Domain, Link

Fingolimod is the leader in the pack of sphingosine-1-phosphate receptor modulators. It has led the way and has the advantage that it is taken by mouth rather than by injection. It is limited by its risks on heart activity, and must be initiated under close cardiac monitoring. Beyond MS, it may have a wider impact on neurological practice as it is under consideration in the treatment of motor neurone disease (MND). Following quickly behind fingolimod, still in trial stages, are laquinimod, ozanimod, ponesimodsiponimod, and amiselimod. It is still not clear if these drugs will have a similar impact as the monoclonal antibodies, in which case we may end up with the war of the ‘Mabs’ versus the ‘Mods’.

3. Dimethyl fumarate

By Ben Mills - Own work, Public Domain, Link
By Ben MillsOwn work, Public Domain, Link

Dimethyl fumarate is an oral MS drug which works by activating the erythroid-derived 2-like transcriptional pathway. It has the stamp of approval of a Cochrane Database review on account of moderate quality evidence from two randomized clinical trials. It is fairly well-tolerated, mild flushing being the commonest reported side effect. 

4. Terifluonomide

By Jynto (talk) - Own workThis chemical image was created with Discovery Studio Visualizer., CC0, Link
By Jynto (talk) – Own workThis chemical image was created with Discovery Studio Visualizer., CC0, Link

Terifluonomide is another oral drug developed for the treatment of MS. It is a pyrimidine synthesis inhibitor. Unlike dimethyl fumarate, a recent Cochrane database review for terifluonomide found only low-quality evidence from 5 clinical trials. The review says ‘all studies had a high risk of detection bias for relapse assessment, and a high risk of bias due to conflicts of interest‘. Not very glowing tributes, but in its favour is the low frequency of significant side effects.

5. PEGylated interferon

Von Anypodetos - Eigenes Werk, CC0, Link
Von AnypodetosEigenes Werk, CC0, Link

PEG-interferon is an enhancement to good interferons of old (which, by the way, are still on active duty in MS). It was developed to reduce the high frequency of injections associated with Interferon beta-1a. Pegylation is the attachment of polyethylene glycol (PEG), and this process increases the half life of drugs. It is not clear that pegylation offers any other advantage over ‘ordinary’ interferon, but surely the 2 weekly injection is a significant advance. 

Breakthrough VSCO Monochrome Black & White KitCam at Carnegie Museum Of Art. Spiro Bolos on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/spirobolos/15879318128
Breakthrough VSCO Monochrome Black & White KitCam at Carnegie Museum Of Art. Spiro Bolos on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/spirobolos/15879318128


For the future direction of MS treatment, I recommend Gavin Giovannoni‘s BartsMS Blog.

You may also  check out this recent review in American Health and Drug Benefits titled The Latest Innovations in the Drug Pipeline for Multiple Sclerosis