Differences Between Multiple Sclerosis and Atherosclerosis

In this article, we will compare two diseases which on the first sound, may appear to be similar: Multiple sclerosis and Atherosclerosis. These two diseases, target different areas of the body and have distinct characteristics. So let’s look at the differences together.
Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Neuroscientist at the University Of Cambridge.

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Differences Between Multiple Sclerosis and Atherosclerosis

Although the name might look similar, Multiple sclerosis and atherosclerosis are two distinct diseases. Both multiple sclerosis and atherosclerosis are diseases of the body’s systems. However, they differ in multiple areas, including pathology, clinical manifestation, diagnosis, and treatment.

What is multiple sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a long-term inflammatory disease [1].

MS affects the central nervous system (CNS), where individuals experience lesions caused by autoimmune inflammation, resulting in damage to the myelin sheath and axons [2]. This damage leads to adverse physical or cognitive disabilities and neurological defects [1].

Interestingly, all structures of the CNS may be affected, though the longest tracts are affected most often [2].

There are four types of MS, and the course of the disease can be relapsing-remitting or primary and secondary progressive type [2].

MS is a multifactorial disease potentially caused by genetic predisposition and environmental factors such as vitamin deficiencies, smoking, and exposure to infectious agents [3].

Did you know that MS is the second most common cause of disability in adults in the US after head trauma? [3].

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease caused by the buildup of plaque inside the large and medium arteries [4, 5].

The plaques are slowly built up, usually composed of fat, cholesterol, calcium, minerals, and other substances found in the blood [6]. They evolve and form atheromatous plaques [7, 8]. As the plaques grow and harden, they narrow the arteries and limit the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the body [6].

With disease progression, the plaques can rupture, trigger thrombosis, or lead to serious conditions such as unstable angina, myocardial infarction, ischemic stroke, or even sudden death [4, 9].

The disease is a result of a complex interaction between genetic and environmental risk factors, including dyslipidemia, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and smoking [4].

What Is The Treatment For Multiple Sclerosis and Atherosclerosis ?

MS

The treatment for MS usually includes disease modification. This is done using immunomodulatory drugs or anti-inflammatory drugs. However, these treatments can't stop the destruction of the myelin sheath and ultimately the nerve tissue.

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Another approach is symptom management, which helps address specific problems of MS like fatigue, spasticity, or pain [3].

Newly researched alternatives to these two are stem cell transplantation, which has been proposed as a potential treatment for MS [1].

Atherosclerosis

The treatment of atherosclerosis is mainly focused on changes in lifestyle to manage the modifiable risk factors for the disease [4].

In terms of drugs, medications that can reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels are used to help stabilize the disease [4]. Although this is not an optimal treatment and there is research in the area of using treatments that can raise atheroprotective high-density lipoprotein and/or improve HDL function [4].

Surgical procedures like angioplasty or surgeries on the coronary or carotid arteries are also recommended [6].

Similarly to MS, stem cell therapies for atherosclerosis are also being researched for their potential therapeutic effect with minimal adverse effects [10].

How Can Multiple Sclerosis And Atherosclerosis Be Diagnosed?

Both of these diseases are quite complex and require a combination of considering both the clinical and diagnostic results for accurate diagnosis. Although the diagnostic methods for each of these diseases vary, they both require careful consideration of the medical history (such as previous or present diseases), lifestyle history (such as smoking, etc.), and physical examination of the individual [11].

MS

The diagnosis of MS usually involves neurological examination and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain and the spinal cord.

The MRI is informative of the particular areas of inflammation and damage called “lesions” [12].

Sometimes, a lumbar puncture may be performed to analyze the cerebrospinal fluid for specific MS markers associated with inflammation [12].

Atherosclerosis

For atherosclerosis, the most common method is ultrasound diagnosis, specifically carotid Doppler ultrasonography. This method can identify plaques in the carotid arteries [11].

Another method that can also be used is computed tomography (CT), which can detect the presence of calcified plaques in the coronary arteries [13].

Sometimes a surgical procedure known as angiography can be used to visualize the arteries and detect plaques.

What Are The Differences Between Multiple Sclerosis And Atherosclerosis?

Both MS and atherosclerosis are diseases affecting human bodies; however, they target different areas of the body, different systems, and have different characteristics. Both are multifactorial diseases in which medical history is crucial to help diagnose them.

While MS is an inflammatory disorder of the central nervous system, Atherosclerosis is a disease of the cardiovascular system.

In MS, we observe damages to the myelin sheath leading to problems with transmitting nerve signals and therefore causing problems with communication between thebrain and the rest of the body [14, 15].

The pathology of Atherosclerosis consists of built-up plaques narrowing the veins and causing problems as it limits the flow of oxygen into the organs [16, 17].

In terms of clinical manifestation, people with severe MS may have problems with walking and moving, and atherosclerosis can lead to serious problems like heart attacks, strokes, or even death.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) and atherosclerosis are both diseases that affect the body's systems, but they target different areas and have distinct characteristics.

Although both of the diseases may have serious impacts on someone’s health, they are different in their causes, symptoms, treatments, and also diagnosis.

However, research has shown that there may be some overlap in the risk factors and comorbidities associated with both diseases. For example, atherosclerosis has been associated with worse clinical and radiological outcomes in MS patients [18]. Similarly, MS patients may be more prone to have subclinical atherosclerosis due to chronic inflammation [15, 19].

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Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Frederika is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge, where she investigates new biomarkers for Frontotemporal Dementia and other tauopathies. Her research has been published at prestigious conferences such as the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2023. She obtained her BSc in Biomedical Sciences from UCL, where she worked closely with the UK Dementia Research Institute.