by Craig Weatherby
Traumatic brain injury or TBI happens during accidents and sports mishaps, when the brain takes a shock that causes tissue damage.
Sadly, TBI became the signature wound of the Iraq war, in which some soldiers survived a blast only to suffer invisible blows to their cognitive and emotional capacities.
Omega-3s may offer hope for blunting the effects of TBI. In fact, a series of animal studies—and one amazing story of human survival—echo and support the paper we're reporting on today.
For example, in 2004, researchers reported that omega-3s deterred the worst brain damage from concussions suffered by rats (see “Fish Fats Boost Brain Resilience; Fast Food Diet Deepens Brain Damage”).
And two rat experiments published in 2010—done by the same West Virginia University team that performed the new study—bolstered the idea that omega-3s can curb the brain damage resulting from TBIs.
Taken together with these prior successes, the positive outcomes of a new rodent study should bolster proposals to give U.S. soldiers omega-3s to help reduce suicide risks and the brain-damaging effects of explosions (see “Soldiers and Omega-3s: Pentagon Pitched on Benefits”).
Omega-3 DHA wins another round in rodents
Neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, M.D., and his colleagues from West Virginia University (WVU) report that rats who received the highest dose of DHA supplementation prior to traumatic brain injury experienced the least amount of tissue damage.
Their study involved groups of adult male rats, which received daily DHA doses of 0, 3, 12, or 40 mg per kilo of body weight for 30 days prior to a traumatic brain injury.
And the results showed that the animals that got the highest dose of omega-3 DHA had significantly reduced brain damage, compared to the other animals.
Specifically, levels of APP protein—a key marker for brain damage—were about six times lower in the high-DHA-dose group, compared with the animals that got no DHA.
The high-DHA-dose animals also showed decreases in two major measures of brain cell death: a chemical called caspase 3, and macrophage-type immune cells.
The rats that got ample DHA also suffered less behavior impairment, as measured by their performance in a water maze.
Study authors previously used omega-3s to save a miner’s brain
Back in 2007, we reported the dramatic story of Randal McCloy, the sole survivor of the Sago Coal Mine disaster in West Virginia.
Mr. McCloy suffered extreme carbon monoxide exposure, which normally results in severe brain damage.
While he received the standard interventions, including hyperbaric oxygen treatment, these were not expected to prevent serious disability.
But his neurosurgeon—Julian Bailes, M.D. of West Virginia University—made the unprecedented decision to administer very high doses of omega-3 fish oil.
Dr. Bailes said McCloy had almost no measurable brain activity until they started feeding him fish oil through a tube, which provided huge doses of the two key omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA).
As the authors of the Men’s Health article wrote, “unexpectedly, McCloy emerged from his coma. This in itself was amazing, but he wasn't done. In the weeks that followed, he stunned even the most optimistic experts by recovering his memory and gradually regaining his ability to walk, talk, and see, a turnaround that many in the medical field called miraculous.”
The conclusion of this part of the article is worth quoting:
“‘The omega-3s helped rebuild the damaged gray and white matter of his brain,’ says Dr. Bailes, who now takes his own medicine, swallowing a fish-oil supplement each morning. On his orders, McCloy, still recuperating at home, continues to take fish oil daily. ‘I would say he should be on it for a lifetime,’ says Dr. Bailes. ‘But then, I think everybody should.’”
For the full story, see “Miner’s ‘Miracle’ Leads Stellar Omega-3 Summary”.
The WVU researchers made no bones about the encouraging import of this new confirmation of DHA’s protective power:
“The potential for DHA to provide prophylactic [preventive] benefit to the brain against traumatic injury appears promising and requires further investigation. The essential concept of daily dietary supplementation with DHA, so that those at significant risk may be preloaded to provide protection against the acute effects of [traumatic brain injury], has tremendous public health implications.” (Bailes JE et al. 2011)
And, we would add, it holds urgent implications for protection of soldiers exposed to explosions.
Last year, Dr. Bailes’ team achieved positive results in two rat studies in which they administered DHA before inflicting a brain trauma (Bailes JE, Mills JD 2010; Mills JD et al. 2010).
As in their new study, rats that got DHA showed much smaller increases in two key markers for brain damage (APP and caspase-3) and their brain chemistry returned to normal within one month, compared with rats that got no DHA.
As the West Virginia University group wrote, “Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation significantly reduces the number of APP-positive axons [brain-cell connectors] at 30 days post-injury to levels similar to those in uninjured animals.”
These highly encouraging outcomes led them to an obvious conclusion: “[Omega-3] DHA is safe, affordable, and readily available worldwide to potentially reduce the burden of TBI.” (Bailes JE, Mills JD 2010)
A human therapeutic trial is underway at the University of North Carolina, examining whether DHA affects long-term brain function in retired National Football League players.
That’s a welcome development, but we also need human trials designed to test prevention or reduction of TBI with omega-3 DHA given immediately after an injury. (It will be harder to design studies that reliably test the effects of long-term DHA supplementation on the relative severity of TBIs.)
We hope that this new rat experiment and prior positive outcomes will lead to human trials designed to test reduction of TBI harm, as well as treatment after the fact.
Bailes JE, Mills JD, Hadley K. Dietary Supplementation with the Omega-3 Fatty Acid Docosahexaenoic Acid in Traumatic Brain Injury? Neurosurgery. 2011 Jan 5. [Epub ahead of print]
Bailes JE, Mills JD. Docosahexaenoic acid reduces traumatic axonal injury in a rodent head injury model. J Neurotrauma. 2010 Sep;27(9):1617-24.
Guskiewicz K. Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) Supplementation in Retired Professional Football Players. Accessed at http://www.csra.unc.edu/research.htm
- Mills JD, Bailes JE, Sedney CL, Hutchins H, Sears B. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and reduction of traumatic axonal injury in a rodent head injury model. J Neurosurg. 2011 Jan;114(1):77-84. Epub 2010 Jul 16.