MSFHR funded research suggests existence of pre-clinical MS symptoms

In 2016, Dr. José Wijnands was awarded an MSFHR Research Trainee Award to search for early signs and symptoms that could help identify multiple sclerosis (MS) before disease onset. Her research suggests that these signs are identifiable five years before the clinical onset of disease.

MS is thought to be an autoimmune disease where the body attacks myelin, the protective coating around nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing symptoms from dizziness and memory problems, to vision loss and difficulty walking.

It is generally accepted that the process of degeneration in MS starts years before clinical manifestation, similar to other neurodegenerative diseases, but the cause and characteristics of this degeneration period are poorly understood.

However, new research from Dr. José Wijnands and Dr. Helen Tremlett at the University of British Columbia and Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health suggests the existence of a measurable MS prodrome, an early set of symptoms that indicate disease onset.

Alongside colleagues from across Canada, Drs Wijnands and Tremlett examined the health records of 14,000 people with MS and 72,000 people without the disease from BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. They found that relative to controls, people with MS had higher rates of inpatient and outpatient health care use, and a higher number of dispensed medications, in the five years before the first demyelinating event – the first medical recognition of an MS-like episode.

Dr. Wijnands explains, “MS is difficult to diagnose and existing treatments are only partially effective, so being able to identify MS earlier gives us a window of opportunity to treat, and potentially prevent disease progression, which could have profound implications for people living with the disease.” 

The next step for Dr. Wijnands and the research team is to try and understand why people with MS have higher health care use in the five years before the first demyelinating event to help with earlier diagnosis and provide clues about the underlying cause of MS.

“I am very grateful to the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and the Koehle Family Foundation for funding my research. The support offers me the great opportunity to contribute to a more timely recognition of MS,” said Dr. Wijnands.


Dr. José Wijnands, postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine (Neurology) and Centre for Brain Health at UBC was awarded a 2016 Research Trainee Award that was co-funded by MSFHR and The Koehle Family Foundation.

Dr. Helen Tremlett, professor in the Faculty of Medicine (Neurology) and Centre for Brain Health at UBC and senior author of the study, has previously received 2004 Research Trainee and 2007 Scholar Awards. She is currently the Canada Research Chair in Neuroepidemiology and MS.