multiple sclerosis, wheelchair
A woman diagnosed with multiple sclerosis walks with her disabled husband.dominikgolenia/Flickr

Certain drugs commonly used to treat high cholesterol can also help slow down progression of a nervous system disease known as multiple sclerosis (MS), researchers say.

Multiple sclerosis affects the brain and spinal cord by damaging the myelin sheath, a substance that guards nerve cells. This affects the normal communication between brain and the body. People with the disease experience vision-related problems, muscle weakness, coordination and balancing difficulties, feelings of numbness or prickling and poor memory/ thinking process.

The study reported in The Lancet mainly focused on a cholesterol-lowering drug known as simvastatin (Zocor). For the study, researchers from the Imperial College in London included 140 patients with secondary progressive MS. Results showed that the statin was highly effective in slowing brain shrinkage in patients with advanced stage of the disease. At the end of the two-year study, patients receiving simvastatin scored better on movement tests and disability assessing questionnaires than another group of patients who were on a placebo-based treatment.

"At the moment, we don't have anything that can stop patients from becoming more disabled, once MS reaches the progressive phase," Dr Richard Nicholas, co-author of the study, said in a news release. "Discovering that statins can help slow that deterioration is quite a surprise. This is a promising finding, particularly as statins are already cheap and widely used."

The number of people affected with MS in the world increased from 2.1 million in 2008 to 2.3 million in 2013, according to a 2013 report compiled by the MSIF (Multiple Sclerosis International Federation) International. Prevalence of the disease was highest in North America and Europe and was lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia.

Previous research into the issue showed that certain medications like interferon beta 1b (Betaseron), mitoxantrone (Novantrone)and natalizumab (Tysabri) can be used to treat patients with secondary progressive MS experiencing frequent attacks. However, these medications cannot help when the patients are in a progressive course and do not have any attacks, experts from The Cleveland Clinic said. They also recommended patients to exercise regularly and follow a heart healthy diet.

Similar to the current study, early this year, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in the US highlighted the role of vitamin D in severity of MS and progression. In the study, sufficient levels of vitamin D dramatically reduced risk of new brain lesions, possibility of relapsing, an increase in the lesion volume and a loss in brain volume.