2002 Robert Ader New Investigator award. Relationship of cardiovascular reactivity, stressful life events, and multiple sclerosis disease activity.Brain Behav Immun 2003; 17(3):141-51BB
Previous studies of stress in multiple sclerosis patients have suggested that life events may alter the onset and development of MS. However, results have been inconsistent because of infrequent monitoring and reporting bias. We followed fifty female MS patients for 1 year to determine characteristics of life events associated with MS exacerbations, and examine the influence of cardiovascular activity. Subjects completed weekly life-event checklists. The short- and long-term threat of each event was determined using the Life Events and Difficulties Schedule. Neurologic symptoms were also monitored weekly. MS exacerbations were confirmed by a neurologist blinded to psychosocial events. Cardiovascular reactivity to an acute psychological stressor was determined at study onset, and resting heart rate and blood pressure were monitored monthly. Forty-two percent of life events were associated with exacerbations in the subsequent 6 weeks. Logistic regression confirmed that exacerbations were more likely during at-risk periods following life events and were relatively independent of the threat level and type of stressor. Participants with higher cardiovascular reactivity to acute stress and higher baseline heart rate demonstrated a greater number of exacerbations and proportion of weeks ill. Using multiple regression, we found that disability level, medication usage, cardiovascular reactivity, baseline heart rate, and life event density explained approximately 30% of the variance in the proportion of weeks ill. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that stress is a potential trigger of MS disease activity and suggest that autonomic tone and stress reactivity may play a role in the development of stress-related exacerbations.