Mechanisms of action of ACTH in the management of relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis

Regina Berkovich, Mark A. Agius

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

31 Scopus citations


Acute and subacute inflammation, the mechanisms by which demyelination and axonal loss occur in multiple sclerosis (MS), result from the migration of activated immune cells into the central nervous system parenchyma. The triggering antigen is unknown, but the process involves deregulated immune response of T and B lymphocytes, macrophages, and mediators with expansion of autoreactive T cells creating a shift in the balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines favoring inflammation. Ongoing disease activity and exacerbations early in the course of relapsing-remitting MS may prevent full remission and propagate future progressive disability. A key strategy of immune therapy is timely initiation of treatment to achieve remission, followed by maintenance of remission. In this context, treatment with high-dose methylprednisolone (MP) is currently recommended to induce a faster recovery from a clinical exacerbation that results from an acute inflammatory attack. Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH or corticotropin) gel is an alternative for patients who do not respond to or do not tolerate corticosteroids. ACTH is a universal agonist in the melanocortin (MC) system and, as such, among other functions, stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol. MCs are a family of peptides that includes ACTH and other MC peptides. This system has five classes of receptors, all of which show a strong affinity for ACTH, suggesting a more complex and dynamic mechanism than only inducing endogenous corticosteroid production. ACTH and MCs regulate processes relevant to MS, including anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory functions involving lymphocytes, macrophages, the sympathetic nervous system involved in inflammatory processes, and reduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines. The clinical implications of the mechanistic differences between corticosteroid and ACTH gel treatment remain to be elucidated. Recent data show that patients experiencing an acute exacerbation, who previously had suboptimal response to or were unable to tolerate MP treatment, showed positive clinical outcomes with fewer adverse events with ACTH gel.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)83-96
Number of pages14
JournalTherapeutic Advances in Neurological Disorders
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2014


  • ACTH
  • adrenal cortex hormones
  • melanocortins
  • multiple sclerosis/immunology
  • multiple sclerosis/therapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Neurology
  • Pharmacology

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