The abnormal immune system response that causes multiple sclerosis (MS) by attacking and damaging the Central Nervous System can be triggered by the lack of a specific fatty acid in tissues, a new study suggests.

The finding, published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, suggests that dietary change might help treat some people suffering the autoimmune disease.

“We’ve known for a while that both genetics and environment play a role in the development of MS,” said senior author David Hafler, Professor at Yale University in the US.

“This paper suggests that one of environmental factors involved is diet,” Hafler added.

Fat tissues in patients diagnosed with MS lack normal levels of ‘oleic acid’, a monounsaturated fatty acid found in high levels in cooking oils, meats (beef, chicken, and pork), cheese, nuts, sunflower seeds, eggs, pasta, milk, olives, and avocados, according to the study.

This lack of oleic acid leads to a loss of the metabolic sensors that activate T cells, that mediate the immune system’s response to infectious disease, the team found.

Without the suppressing effects of these regulatory T cells, the immune system can attack healthy Central Nervous System cells and lead to vision loss, pain, lack of coordination, and other debilitating symptoms of MS.

When researchers introduced oleic acid into the fatty tissues of MS patients in laboratory experiments, levels of regulatory T cells increased, they found.

The researcher had earlier noted that obesity triggers unhealthy levels of inflammation and is a known risk factor for MS, an observation that led him to study the role of diet in MS.

He stressed, however, that more study is necessary to determine whether eating a diet high in oleic acid can help some MS patients.