Berberine, plant compound, eases disease severity in MS mouse model

Potentially natural MS treatment lowers inflammatory signaling molecules, T-cells

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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An illustration of compounds available in various herbs and other food products.

Treatment with berberine, a compound found in many plants, eased disease severity and showed anti-inflammatory effects in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS), a new study reports.

“These results confirmed that treatment with berberine efficiently improved the disease in the animal model of MS,” the researchers wrote, noting the results suggest this compound may be a promising therapeutic approach for people with MS.

The study, “Berberine promotes immunological outcomes and decreases neuroinflammation in the experimental model of multiple sclerosis through the expansion of Treg and Th2 cells,” was published in Immunity, Inflammation and Disease.

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Berberine is found in many plants and herbs that have been used in traditional medicines. Modern scientific investigations have shown that this compound has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties, and it may potentially modify the disease course in people with MS.

Scientists in Iran tested the effects of berberine treatment given to mice with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), a common mouse model of MS. Female mice with EAE were administered either an inactive treatment (salt water) or berberine at a low or high dose (10 or 30 mg/kg).

Over the course of the experiments, results showed that mice treated with berberine retained a greater body weight — generally an indicator of better overall health.

Measures of disease severity also were significantly lower in berberine-treated mice, with a more pronounced effect seen with the higher dose of the compound. Berberine at 30 mg/kg significantly decreased the severity of disability and paralysis, and greatly eased symptoms of the disease.

“Berberine in low and high doses was capable of reducing the disease’s severity,” the researchers wrote.

Tissue analyses showed fewer inflammatory cells in the brain of mice treated with berberine, as well as lesser evidence of demyelination, the progressive loss of the myelin sheath that is damaged in MS.

The treatment also led to a significant decrease in levels of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules, such as interferon gamma, tumor necrosis factor alpha, and interleukin-17. Meanwhile, levels of anti-inflammatory molecules like interleukin-4 and interleukin-10 were higher in treated mice.

Additional analyses showed that berberine’s use significantly reduced the growth of T-cells, a type of immune cell. More specifically, results indicated that berberine-treated mice had fewer Th1 and Th17 cells, which are subsets of T-cells that are generally more pro-inflammatory and have been implicated in driving autoimmune diseases like MS.

By contrast, levels of anti-inflammatory T-cell subtypes — namely, Th2 and regulatory T-cells (Tregs) — were higher in mice given berberine relative to untreated mice in this model.

“We found direct evidence that berberine could reduce the expression of inflammatory cytokines in Th1 and Th17 cells, meanwhile increasing the activity of Treg and Th2 cells and enhancing secretion of regulatory cytokines [small proteins with roles in cell signaling] from these cells,” the researchers concluded.

Findings “imply that berberine plays an important role in holding the balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory T cells,” and they support previous MS studies into this natural compound, the team also noted.