PML is a rare progressive disease of the nervous system. It is caused by a viral infection of the cells that produce myelin.

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PML is caused by a specific papovavirus, known as JC virus. Many people get this infection in childhood. It produces no illness and generally does not infect the nervous system. It reactivates later in life in people who have suppressed immune systems. The virus damages oligodendrocytes, the cells in the central nervous system (CNS) which produce myelin, the material that wraps around nerves. This impairs nerve function.