Researchers are looking at alpha-lipoic acid to see if it can help multiple sclerosis patients with gait and balance.

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An organic compound that acts as an antioxidant may help some people with multiple sclerosis walk a little better.

Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) report that a has revealed that daily doses of 1,200 mg of alpha-lipoic acid may help some multiple sclerosis (MS) patients with their gait.

After two years in the randomized, double-blind study, those that took the supplement maintained walking speeds but those on the placebo deteriorated.

“This small study showed modest benefit to help understand gait and balance effect,” Kathy Costello, associate vice president of healthcare access at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, told Healthline.

“Walking is very important and without balance it’s difficult. These are measures that seem to get at what’s needed for people to be mobile,” she said.

Alpha-lipoic acid is naturally found in low levels of some foods, including dark leafy greens, broccoli, yams, potatoes, red meat, and organ meat. It’s also available as an over-the-counter supplement.

“Alpha-lipoic acid is an interesting supplement. It has properties that may be beneficial to MS,” Costello said. “We’re not 100 percent clear, but human and animal studies have shown some benefit.”

She and other experts said they were encouraged by the study, but they cautioned it’s still early in this research phase.

“I don’t recommend that folks should go out and take megadoses of alpha-lipoic acid,” said Costello. “The study is looking at the potential benefit of the supplement.”

“Taking large quantities of alpha-lipoic acid could affect blood sugar levels” she warned. “Eating a heart healthy diet is a good way to go, getting nutrients needed by eating healthy. Obesity, diabetes, and other comorbidities don’t do as well with MS, so get healthy, heart healthy.”

“This small study adds to previous reports in both animal models of MS and a few human trials, that lipoic acid may have beneficial effects in MS,” Dr. Barbara Giesser, professor of clinical neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles and clinical director of the UCLA multiple sclerosis program, told Healthline. “In this case, on preserving some mobility parameters in persons with secondary progressive MS.”

“Lipoic acid may be of benefit for persons with MS and appears to be well tolerated. Further and larger studies of this agent seem warranted.” Giesser said.

This sub-study was based on an original pilot study.

Of the 51 participants in that study, 21 could walk so researchers looked at gait functions.

The researchers created the pilot study to see if lipoic acid had any effect on neurological exams, walking, and cognitive abilities.

The recent sub-study involving 54 people looked specifically at walking ability.

“There is evidence of excessive oxidative stress in the MS brain,” Dr. Rebecca Spain, principal study investigator and associate professor of neurology at OHSU, told Healthline.

“Alpha-lipoic acid is a powerful antioxidant that could make the illness less bad, but it will not stop the disease,” she adds.

“It is produced naturally, it’s an antioxidant, so what is it actually going to do to a person? Create more energy, allow them to think better or walk better? It is a blank slate until research unveils some benefit,” said Spain.

Spain explained that the small study size may be a result of a random grouping, so further research with more people is necessary.

The team is currently recruiting for a phase II trial that will enroll 118 people across 7 sites.

“This study will see if walking ability and the MRI measurements improve. It will also be looking at other outcomes. A whole battery of tests,” she said.

“We will find out in a couple of years if it might work,” said Spain, “It is slow going, but a lead with encouraging data is worth following up.”

The researchers at OHSU are “also looking at two forms of alpha-lipoic acid and which one is better absorbed,” Cassidy Taylor, clinical research coordinator for the multisite trial, told Healthline.

“This second trial will look at absorption and tolerability. A common complaint was stomach upset, which can be common with oral medications. We are looking to see if the form can make a difference,” Taylor said.

Editor’s note: Caroline Craven is a patient expert living with MS. Her award-winning blog is GirlwithMS.com, and she can be found on Twitter.