Link between guts, brains and MS: Top researchers to speak at public symposium in Edmonton

Some of the world's top multiple sclerosis researchers will be part of a public forum in Edmonton that will explore the link between gut bacteria and the incurable disease.

Alberta rate of multiple sclerosis is among the highest in the world

A symposium on multiple sclerosis in Edmonton will focus on the link between the human gut, the brain and the disease. (CBC)

Some of the world's top multiple sclerosis researchers will be part of a public forum in Edmonton that will explore the link between gut bacteria and the incurable disease.

The one-day symposium on Friday is being presented by the University of Alberta — fitting, given that Alberta has one of the worst rates of MS in the world, according to Dr. Christopher Power, a U of A neurology professor and co-director of the university's MS Centre.

"It's unclear why that is, probably a combination of environment as well as genetics," Power told CBC's Radio Active.

"We don't know the cause of MS. But we know there are certain factors that increase the likelihood."

MS is an auto-immune disease that progressively disrupts information flow from and within the brain.

About 12,000 Albertans are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which closely follows the national rate of about 300 cases per 100,000 people. Comparatively, the prevalence in Germany is about half that rate, according to statistics from the MS International Foundation.

There are about 2.5 million MS cases worldwide.

Dr. Christopher Power is a professor of neurology at the University of Alberta, and co-director of the university's MS Centre.

Some of the known contributing factors to MS include ethnicity (specifically, people with a northern European background,) a vitamin D deficiency, and living far from the equator, Power said.

But research in recent years has uncovered a new potential factor, linking bacteria in the human gut to MS.

The development has excited researchers like Power, making it a perfect theme for this week's symposium at the U of A.

Power explained that nerves connect the brain and the gut, which is where most of a human's immune system is located.

"For every cell in the body there is a bacteria in the body, and the gut is the main reservoir for bacteria," Power said. "There are billions of bacteria in our guts and those bacteria, called the gut microbiome, have a lot of influence on our health, our well-being, as well as on diseases."

Could diet be an answer?

But in people with MS, he said, the immune function is somehow upset. Instead of working normally, it attacks the brain.

While the research is promising, Power said it's too early to jump to the conclusion that a change in diet could be a solution for MS sufferers, though that is a key area of future study.

"We're really at an early stage of understanding this and MS, but we know there are certain types of bacteria in the gut that are beneficial and some that are not good for heath," he said.

"Changing that homeostasis and restoring it to an optimal, healthy state is something that we are actively working on."

Power described the symposium as an opportunity to showcase cutting edge science to university students, educators and the public.

It features top researchers such as Dr. Hartmut Wekerle from Munich, Germany. Wekerle's research has shown that if you change the microbiome in the gut of mice, you can change the disease course in models of MS, Power said.

Science made accessible

Other speakers include Dr. Kassandra Munger, a Harvard epidemiologist and expert in MS risk factors, the U of A's Dr. Jens Walter, and the University of Calgary's Tom Louie, a pioneer in fecal transplantation.

Power said while the scientists are world-calibre, the presentations will be at level that anyone with an interest will be able to understand. "This is a scientific session, but all our our presenters will try to make it as accessible as possible for the public," he said.

The symposium is free but online pre-registration is required.