Scientists seek evidence about diet and progression of MS

13 February 2019

Many people who are newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) are keen to know if a change of diet can help reduce their symptoms and/or improve their health outcomes.

At present there is no reliable evidence linking diet and the progression of MS after diagnosis. Dr Lucinda Black, Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University, investigated perceptions of diet and MS amongst people newly diagnosed with MS. That research was published last year in a paper entitled Dietary responses to a multiple sclerosis diagnosis: a qualitative study.

“People interviewed for the study indicated they wanted nutritional advice to help minimise the impact of MS on their lives,” said Dr Black.

“Many reported they were conducting their own research into MS and experimenting with their diet.”

Dr Black, now in her third year of a $300,000 MSWA Postdoctoral Fellowship, is now searching for evidence linking dietary factors and the rate at which MS progresses following diagnosis.

Funded by MSWA, the research is analysing data from the Ausimmune Study, an Australian multi-centre case-control study investigating the role of environmental factors in the development of early demyelinating disease (a common precursor to MS).

Dr Black and her collaborators from the Ausimmune Study are comparing two sets of data from MRI scans and relapse rates from over 200 cases of MS. The first set of data was recorded at the baseline stage soon after diagnosis, and another set was recorded two to three years later.

Information about the subjects’ diet was also gathered at the baseline stage. Dr Black and her colleagues are now looking for evidence of patterns between a person’s diet prior to diagnosis and the rate of progression of their MS after diagnosis. The progression of the condition is measured by the relapse rate and brain lesions detected on MRI scans.

“Ultimately we hope to provide evidence for the development of recommendations about diet and MS and also dispel the myths from non-evidenced based information available online in the media,” said Dr Black.

“If this study does suggest that a particular diet may be beneficial to people with MS, the next step would be a dietary intervention study in which participants would follow the diet to further investigate its impact on the progression of their condition.”

This study builds on previous research published in May 2018 by Dr Black and the collaborators from the Ausimmune Study. The study, A healthy dietary pattern associates with a lower risk of first clinical diagnosis of central nervous system demyelination, showed an association between a higher intake of healthy foods, such as vegetables, fish, eggs, poultry and legumes, and lower risk of having a first clinical diagnosis of central nervous system demyelination (a precursor to MS).

“Until we have evidence-based information about diet and its relation to MS the best available nutritional advice is provided in the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and those apply to all Australians, not just people with MS,” said Dr Black.

MSWA CEO Marcus Stafford AM said the work of Dr Black and her colleagues was a valuable component of MSWA’s research investment program, which reached a record $3 million in the 2018-19 year.

“Scientists around the world, including our very own local Lucinda Black, are investigating the possible neuroprotective powers of foods such as oily fish for various neurological conditions such as stroke and Parkinson’s,” said Mr Stafford.

“Increasingly, MSWA has been allocating funds for research into other neurological conditions. We are optimistic that insights gained from research into one condition may help inform research into another.”