I was perusing an article that showed up in my Internet science literature filter on inflammation, in this case in ALS (“Neuronal Phagocytosis by Inflammatory Macrophages in ALS Spinal Cord: Inhibition of Inflammation by resolvin D1
.”). Resolvin mutes inflammation; the course of disease improves. Curious whether there was spillover to spinal cord trauma, which of course involves inflammation and immune response, I wrote to Milan Fiala, M.D. at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the paper’s primary contact. “Look under Docosahexaenoic acid in brain trauma TBI etc.,” he said. “The Army is doing a lot of work with this.”
I did, and yes indeed, there is a lot of work being done with Docosahexaenoic acid, DHA for short, which is a parent molecule to resolvin. DHA is a omega-3 fatty acid (a fish oil) that is sold as a dietary supplement and has been linked to improved health in heart, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. The main reason the Army would be interested is brain trauma. There is a large body of evidence that DHA helps injured brains heal. Moreover, if animals were to take DHA in sufficient amounts before
they got a brain injury, their chances of recovery improve significantly.
And yes, there is a growing literature about DHA in the spinal cord field, too. In fact, this research study came out just days ago, also from UCLA: “Dietary Therapy to Promote Neuroprotection in Chronic Spinal Cord Injury
.” According to the study, DHA and an Indian curry spice called curcumin protect nerve tissue after SCI. This underscores the importance, yet to be fully understood, of the role diet plays in the response to spinal injury. In this study, rats fed a diet enriched with DHA and curcumin displayed significantly better walking ability than animals fed a "Western diet" high in saturated fats and sugar.
The animal model in this set of experiments wasn’t quite the same as spinal cord injury. But relevant.
From a UCLA press release:
The UCLA team studied two groups of rats with a condition that simulated cervical myelopathy -- a progressive disorder that often occurs in people with spine-weakening conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis. Cervical myelopathy can lead to disabling neurological symptoms, such as difficulty walking, neck and arm pain, hand numbness and weakness of the limbs. It's the most common cause of spine-related walking problems in people over 55.
The first group of animals was fed rat chow that replicated a Western diet high in saturated fats and sugar. The second group consumed a standard diet supplemented with docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, and curcumin, a compound in turmeric, an Indian curry spice. A third set of rats received a standard rat diet and served as a control group.
Why these supplements? DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid shown to repair damage to cell membranes. Curcumin is a strong antioxidant that previous studies have linked to tissue repair. Both reduce inflammation.
"The brain and spinal cord work together, and years of research demonstrate that supplements like DHA and curcumin can positively influence the brain," said coauthor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, professor of neurosurgery. "We suspected that what works in the brain may also work in the spinal cord. When we were unable to find good data to support our hypothesis, we decided to study it ourselves."
"DHA and curcumin appear to invoke several molecular mechanisms that preserved neurological function in the rats," said Gomez-Pinilla. "This is an exciting first step toward understanding the role that diet plays in protecting the body from degenerative disease."
"Our findings suggest that diet can help minimize disease-related changes and repair damage to the spinal cord," said first author of the paper, Langston Holly. "We next want to look at other mechanisms involved in the cascade of events leading up to chronic spinal-cord injury. Our goal is to identify which stages will respond best to medical intervention and identify effective steps for slowing the disease process."
UCLA scientist Gomez-Pinilla is well known in the SCI research world for making a case for the therapeutic benefits of exercise, and later, of exercise plus DHA. His papers include:
Brain and Spinal Cord Interaction: Protective Effects of Exercise Prior to Spinal Cord Injury.
These findings … imply that the level of chronic activity prior to a spinal cord injury could determine the level of sensory-motor and cognitive recovery following the injury. In particular, exercise prior to the injury onset appears to foster protective mechanisms in the brain and spinal cord…. These findings suggest that an active lifestyle may confer the CNS with the capacity to defend against neurological and cognitive weaknesses after SCI. In particular, our results may be significant to understand the influence of pre-injury conditions such as lifestyle factors on the capacity of patients for healing following neurological damage. The fact that pre-injury conditions can have an impact on the degree of recovery may also help explain the high degree of individual variability in the patient response to treatment.
Voluntary Exercise Induces a BDNF-Mediated Mechanism That Promotes Neuroplasticity
Exercise Restores Levels of Neurotrophins and Synaptic Plasticity Following Spinal Cord Injury. These results are consistent with the concept that synaptic pathways under the regulatory role of BDNF induced by exercise can play a role in facilitating recovery of locomotion following spinal cord injury.
DHA Dietary Supplementation Enhances the Effects of Exercise on Synaptic Plasticity and Cognition
These results indicate that the DHA diet enhance the effects of exercise on cognition and BDNF-related synaptic plasticity, a capacity that may be used to promote mental health and reduce risk of neurological disorders.
The Salutary Effects of DHA Dietary Supplementation on Cognition, Neuroplasticity, and Membrane Homeostasis after Brain Trauma
The overall results emphasize the potential of dietary DHA to counteract broad and fundamental aspects of TBI pathology that may translate into preserved cognitive capacity.
Take home message: If you are a boxer or soldier, or a person with central nervous system trauma, DHA might make sense. For everyone, exercise makes us healthier, and smarter.