NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Could something as simple as eating more fiber help slow multiple sclerosis (MS) progression? Researchers at Rutgers University say their research suggests as much, reporting their latest study involving genetically altered mice supports the notion that the right dietary changes can slow down MS.
This work, conducted at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School’s Department of Neurology, builds on prior research that observed a link between microscopic organisms in the digestive tract (better known as the gut microbiome) and MS. Moving forward, researchers are already preparing tests focusing on dietary changes among human MS patients.
“Unhealthy dietary habits such as low fiber and high fat consumption may have contributed to the steep rise of MS in the US,” says senior study author Kouichi Ito, an associate professor of neurology, in a university release. “In nations where people still eat more fiber, MS is far less common.”
MS, a degenerative condition characterized by the body’s own immune system attacking the protective covering of nerves in the brain, spinal cord, and eyes, affects close to one million U.S. adults, according to estimates.
Numerous earlier studies have differentiated between the gut microbiomes of MS patients and healthy individuals, but according to Prof. Ito, all of those prior projects noted different abnormalities — making it near impossible to identify which change, if any, was specifically driving the progression of the disease.
Scientists find a way to detect unhealthy gut microbes
Now, this latest research, led by research associate Sudhir Kumar Yadav, utilized mice engineered with MS-associated genes. Study authors traced the link connecting changes in the gut bacteria and an MS-like condition known as experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE).
As the rodents matured and grew older, simultaneously developing EAE and a gut inflammatory condition called colitis along the way, study authors noted increased recruitment of inflammatory cells (neutrophils) to the colon and production of an anti-microbial protein known as lipocalin 2 (Lcn-2).
From there, they looked for any evidence that the same processes may be taking place in humans diagnosed with MS. Sure enough, the team recorded high levels of Lcn-2 in patients’ stool samples. Those observations correlated with reduced bacterial diversity, as well as increased levels of other intestinal inflammation markers. Also, researchers found bacteria known to ease inflammatory bowel disease in lower amounts among MS patients with higher levels of fecal Lcn-2.
All in all, these findings suggest fecal Lcn-2 levels may indeed serve as a sensitive marker for detecting unhealthy gut microbiome changes among MS patients. The study also indicates a high-fiber diet, already known to reduce gut inflammation, may also help fight MS.
The team at Rutgers plans on testing that hypothesis as soon as possible. Suhayl Dhib-Jalbut, a co-senior author of the paper who heads the medical school’s neurology department, is already recruiting MS patients for a new trial focusing on how their microbiomes and immune systems may or may not be sensitive to a high-fiber supplement developed by Rutgers Microbiologist Liping Zhao.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology.