Complementary and alternative medicine products are increasingly being used for the treatment of autoimmune diseases. However, the mechanisms of action of these agents are not fully defined. Using the rat adjuvant arthritis (AA) model of human rheumatoid arthritis, we determined whether the ethanol extract of Celastrus aculeatus Merr. (Celastrus), a Chinese herb, can down-modulate the severity of AA, and also examined the Celastrus-induced changes in immune responses to the disease-related antigen mycobacterial heat-shock protein 65 (Bhsp65). AA was induced in the Lewis (LEW; RT.1l) rat by immunization subcutaneously with heat-killed M. tuberculosis H37Ra (Mtb). Celastrus was fed to LEW rats by gavage daily, beginning either before Mtb challenge (preventive regimen) or after the onset of AA (therapeutic regimen). An additional group of rats was given methotrexate for comparison. All rats were graded regularly for the signs of arthritis. In parallel, the draining lymph node cells of Celastrus-treated rats were tested for proliferative and cytokine responses, whereas their sera were tested for the inflammatory mediator nitric oxide. Celastrus feeding suppressed both the induction as well as the progression of AA, and the latter effect was comparable to that of methotrexate. Celastrus treatment induced relative deviation of the cytokine response to anti-inflammatory type and enhanced the production of anti-Bhsp65 antibodies, which are known to be protective against AA. Celastrus feeding also reduced the levels of nitric oxide. On the basis of our results, we suggest further systematic exploration of Celastrus as an adjunct therapeutic modality for rheumatoid arthritis.