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Study shines more light on MS, melatonin link

9/16/2015

Researchers recently found that melatonin – a hormone involved in regulating a person's sleep-wake cycle – may influence MS disease activity. The findings may lead toward better and more targeted therapies.

A group led by Francisco Quintana, Ph.D., at the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital found that during the fall and winter, the group of 139 relapsing remitting MS patients they studied experienced a significant improvement in symptoms. The team then explored a variety of environmental factors possibly linked to MS symptoms, including vitamin D levels, UV incidence and upper respiratory tract infections. The factor that was consistently associated with severity of MS symptoms was melatonin. Melatonin levels are known to correlate with day length – during the longer days of the spring and summer, levels are lower and during the shorter days of the fall and winter, levels are higher.

Based on this observation, the team followed up in the lab, studying the role that melatonin may play on a cellular level. Using both a mouse model and human cells, they studied the effects of melatonin on certain types of cells that are known to play a role in the immune response that leads to MS symptoms. The team found that melatonin affected the roles of two kinds of cells that are important in MS disease progression: pathogenic T cells that directly attack and destroy tissue and regulatory T cells, which are supposed to keep pathogenic T cells in check.

Although melatonin is available over the counter, it has significant drawbacks, including causing unwanted drowsiness. The team's goal is to tease apart the molecular mechanisms that underlie melatonin's role in order to develop targeted, nontoxic drugs that are safe and effective with minimal side effects.

"In the future, melatonin or its derivatives may be used in MS patients after appropriate clinical trials are conducted and dosage is established," said Quintana. "However, extreme caution should be exercised: our data do not show that melatonin or its analogs are effective in treating MS."

The findings were published in the journal Cell.



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