Medical researchers at the University of Alberta have found that an active ingredient in the Persian spice saffron may be used to treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
"We found there is a compound in saffron, known as crocin, that exerts a protective effect in brain cell cultures and other models of MS. It prevented damage to cells that make myelin in the brain," said researcher Chris Power of the University.
"Myelin is insulation around nerves. MS is characterized by inflamed brain cells that have lost this protective insulation, which ultimately leads to neurodegeneration," he explained.
Power noted they are not close to a clinical trial stage yet, but the finding is still exciting.
It has been known in the research community for years that crocin protected neurons in certain situations, but Power and his team wanted to delve further into this area.
His team discovered that inflammation and a specific type of cell stress are closely linked and lead to neurodegeneration and inflammation, which cause cells to lose their protective coating - a process known as demyelination.
In experiments conducted by Power and his colleagues, the use of crocin suppressed both inflammation and this specific type of cell stress, resulting in decreased neurological impairment in lab models and cell cultures with MS.
"There are still many questions to be answered about how crocin exerts these neuroprotective effects, but this research highlights a potential treatment role for crocin in diseases involving chronic neuroinflammation - something that had not been recognized until now," noted Power.
The findings have been recently published in the peer-reviewed publication, The Journal of Immunology.