Hormonal influences in multiple sclerosis: New therapeutic benefits for steroids

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Article (peer-reviewed)

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Multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the most common neurological disorders. It affects mainly women. This autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (CNS) is characterized by intermittent or chronic damage to the myelin sheaths (demyelination), focal inflammation and axonal degeneration. During the early relapsing/remitting stages of MS, myelin can regenerate, but as the disease progresses the remyelination of axons becomes insufficient, leading to impaired axon conduction, neurodegeneration and the worsening of symptoms. The present pharmacological treatment of MS is limited to the administration of immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory drugs, which are only palliative and do not significantly slow progress of the disease. What are needed are agents that target different cell types in the CNS to protect axonal networks and stimulate the endogenous capacity of myelin repair. Estrogens and progestins may be the basis for such a new therapeutic approach. Although clinical observations provide only indirect or insufficient evidence for an influence of sex steroids on the progress of MS, experimental studies have shown that estrogens and progestins exert multiple beneficial effects in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), a widely used MS disease model. Moreover, both types of hormones have been shown to promote the viability of neurons and the formation of myelin. These promising experimental results should encourage the launch of prospective clinical studies to clarify the influence of hormones on the course of MS and the effect of hormone treatments, in particular those presently used in contraception and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).