Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a progressive and debilitating autoimmune disease of unknown origin. In MS, immune cells inappropriately attack the body’s nervous system damaging a substance called myelin which acts as a type of insulation for nerve fibers. Loss of myelin around nerves (lesions) causes dysfunction in the way nerve cells within the brain and spinal cord communicate with each other, resulting in neurological symptoms that can be physical or cognitive in nature. Patients also experience depression and fatigue that is not associated with the psychological effect of having a chronic disease. The broad range of symptoms results from several different sources. First, the number of lesions and their locations within the brain or spinal cord can cause a variety of physical disability symptoms in different body locations. Whether these physical symptoms are in conjunction with depression, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction further complicates attempts at treatment. Although there is no known cure for MS, medications attempt to provide a means for either preventing new attacks or decreasing the level of disability that occurs with each subsequent attack. However, these medications are very expensive and not well tolerated as they require either injections or infusion treatments. In addition, how well the treatments work is not predictable and may depend on the specific form and disease progression as well as other comorbid conditions such as arthritis, obesity or diabetes. Interestingly, one biochemical aspect that is consistent across all forms of MS is that there is significant acute and chronic inflammation. Therefore development of supportive therapies that decrease inflammation would be expected to improve symptoms and/or slow disease progression. In fact, MS patients with fatigue and depression are frequently responsive to anti-inflammatory drugs.
Some isolated botanical extracts have been show to be protective in MS animal models by modulating immune function and decreasing inflammation. Some also improve cognition and depression in animals, symptoms that are troublesome for the MS patient. However, some animal studies have found that botanical extracts actually slow recovery from disease. In addition, botanical extracts may interact with other medications the patient is taking, or may be toxic under certain conditions. Since berries contain high levels of the antioxidant flavonoids and seem to possess beneficial immune modulatory and anti-inflammatory properties, they may prove a safer and more consistent benefit to MS patients. Blueberries, in particular, can alter immune function, decrease inflammation and alter expression of inflammation related chemicals thought to be responsible for some of the sickness behavior, such as depression, fatigue and cognitive dysfunction in MS. We have begun to investigate diet therapy with whole, freeze-dried blueberries in mouse models of MS. In a form of mouse MS that represents an acute and chronically progressive MS presentation, we have shown that dietary supplementation with whole, freeze-dried blueberry powder significantly decreased, by greater than 50%, the incidence of motor defects resulting from disease induction. In addition, blueberry-supplemented mice that did become ill were significantly less ill that mice receiving no supplementation. In as second study with a mouse model that represents a progressive, relapsing-remitting form of MS, we found that addition of the blueberry powder late in the disease progression reduced the cumulative physical disability score by 41%. Additionally, the final disability score at the end of the experiment was significantly reduced in blueberry-supplemented mice.
These preliminary studies are both exciting and encouraging as they suggest that that diet therapies such as supplementation with whole, freeze-dried blueberries may provide an easily delivered, well-tolerated, low cost supportive treatment to improve the care and quality of life for MS patients.