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Confounding underlies the apparent month of birth effect in multiple sclerosis

Lookup NU author(s): Professor James WasonORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Objective Several groups have reported apparent association between month of birth and multiple sclerosis. We sought to test the extent to which such studies might be confounded by extraneous variables such as year and place of birth. Methods Using national birth statistics from 2 continents, we assessed the evidence for seasonal variations in birth rate and tested the extent to which these are subject to regional and temporal variation. We then established the age and regional origin distribution for a typical multiple sclerosis case collection and determined the false-positive rate expected when comparing such a collection with birth rates estimated by averaging population-specific national statistics. Results We confirm that seasonality in birth rate is ubiquitous and subject to highly significant regional and temporal variations. In the context of this variation we show that birth rates observed in typical case collections are highly likely to deviate significantly from those obtained by the simple unweighted averaging of national statistics. The significant correlations between birth rates and both place (latitude) and time (year of birth) that characterize the general population indicate that the apparent seasonal patterns for month of birth suggested to be specific for multiple sclerosis (increased in the spring and reduced in the winter) are expected by chance alone. Interpretation In the absence of adequate control for confounding factors, such as year and place of birth, our analyses indicate that the previous claims for association of multiple sclerosis with month of birth are probably false positives. © 2013 American Neurological Association.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Fiddes B, Wason J, Kemppinen A, Ban M, Compston A, Sawcer S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Annals of Neurology

Year: 2013

Volume: 73

Issue: 6

Pages: 714-720

Print publication date: 01/06/2013

Online publication date: 06/06/2013

Date deposited: 26/01/2018

ISSN (print): 0364-5134

ISSN (electronic): 1531-8249

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell


DOI: 10.1002/ana.23925

PubMed id: 23744589


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