Every year, some 1.7 million Americans suffer a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
And that statistic makes TBI the leading cause of traumatic death and disability in the U.S.
Anything that can help TBI victims’ prognoses and families – and save billions in rehab and long-term care costs – should be pursued aggressively.
Omega-3s from fish – especially DHA – hold real promise, as we’ve reported in recent years (see "Teen’s case and miner’s "miracle” share scientific support”, below).
The justification for urgent clinical testing of DHA in brain injuries just increased.
- Teenage boy was left comatose after a 2010 car crash.
- An Army doctor told his parents about fish oil for traumatic brain injuries.
- Boy’s recovery exceeded his doctors’ expectations and defied his grim prognosis.
- Fish oil was also used successfully on the survivor of a 2006 West Virginia mine disaster.
- Clinical trials are needed, but the promise of fish oil rests on solid research in animals and cells.
Fish oil may have rescued a teenager’s brain
Last, week, CNN reported the case of Virginia teenager Bobby Ghassemi, who, in 2010, suffered a very serious brain injury in a car crash.
His mother paraphrased what Bobby’s doctors told her, "It is a miracle that he lived, that he made it. If he comes out of the coma ... I don't know if he's going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life or whether he'll remember anybody.” (CNN 2012)
As Bobby lay comatose, his parents were desperate for anything that might improve his condition and grim prognosis.
Ten days later his father, Peter Ghassemi, called a series of friends and ultimately found U.S. Army Colonel Michael Lewis, M.D., who’s been researching omega-3s’ effects on suicide in soldiers.
(We covered one of those studies, co-authored with Captain Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) … see Soldiers' Suicide Risk Linked to Omega-3 Lack.)
Dr. Lewis surprised Bobby’s father with his proposal … convince the doctors to feed the 17-year-old fish oil via his feeding tube.
He later advised the family, and as he told CNN, "I'm looking at the [hospital’s] reports, and they report a Glasgow Coma Score of 3. A brick or a piece of wood has a Glasgow Coma Score of 3. It's dead.” (CNN 2012)
Yet, after receiving fish oil, Bobby enjoyed a remarkably strong, rapid recovery …one presaged by a more famous case (see "Teen’s case and miner’s 'miracle' share scientific support", below).
Last August, Drs. Hibbeln and Lewis published a paper about Bobby’s case, in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine.
And these excerpts from its summary make a strong, succinct case for both expedited clinical research and for the FDA to permit safe, "compassionate” use of fish oil in TBI patients (Lewis M et al. 2012):
- "Here, we present a case that was intentionally treated with substantial amounts of omega-3 fatty acids to provide the nutritional foundation for the brain to begin the healing process following severe TBI.
- "Recent animal research supports the use of omega-3 fatty acids, and clinical experience suggests that benefits may be possible from substantially and aggressively adding omega-3 fatty acids to optimize the nutritional foundation of severe TBI patients and must be in place if the brain is to be given the opportunity to repair itself to the best possible extent.
- "Administration early in the course of treatment, in the emergency department or sooner, has the potential to improve outcomes from this potentially devastating public health problem.”
Teen’s case and miner’s "miracle” share scientific support
This Virginia teenager’s unusually robust, rapid recovery echoes a story that made headlines five years ago.
Back in 2007, doctors were desperate to help Randal McCloy … the sole survivor of the Sago Coal Mine disaster in West Virginia, who suffered serious brain damage from carbon monoxide exposure.
McCloy’s neurosurgeon – Julian Bailes, M.D., of West Virginia University – decided to throw a "Hail Mary pass”, in the form of hyperbaric oxygen treatment and intravenous fish oil.
The stricken miner had almost no measurable brain activity until Bailes’ team started giving him fish oil through a tube in order to deliver large doses of omega-3 fatty acids.
Dr. Bailes said that he believes the miner’s brain function was spared and restored only by his doctors’ unprecedented decision.
As he told Men’s Health magazine, "The omega-3s helped rebuild the damaged gray and white matter of his brain. I would say he should be on it for a lifetime. But then, I think everybody should.”
Of the two omega-3s essential to human life and health – DHA and EPA – DHA is by far the most critical to brain function.
This explains why brain cell membranes are rich in DHA … so much so that this omega-3 fat constitutes the biggest single component of the human brain, by weight.
Dr. Bailes’ belief in DHA’s importance to people’s diets is reflected in a series of related studies we’ve reported in recent years.
For example, see these summaries and others in the Omega-3s & Brain Health section of our news archive:
Fish Oil Aided Size and Health of Aging Brains, Fish Fats Boost Brain Resilience; Fast Food Diet Deepens Brain Damage, Harvard Team Finds Key Cause of Age-Related Brain Fog, New Insight into Anti-Aging Brain Benefits of Omega-3s, and MIT Report Shows Omega-3s Boost Brain Networks Critical to Memory Capacity.
Omega-3s’ potential to help humans has support from basic research
The idea that omega-3s can help protect and heal the human brain enjoys substantial support from a growing body of lab evidence … for example, see Fish Fat Curbed Rat's Brain Injuries and Omega-3 Curbed Traumatic Brain Injury in Rats,
Last June, we were privileged to see Queen Mary University scientist Adina Michael-Titus, D.Sc., present the amazing results of her team’s research into the ability of omega-3 DHA to reduce the effects of spinal injuries and enhance recovery.
In 2006, her team reported that competing omega-6 fats actually worsen outcomes of spinal injuries:
"This report shows a striking difference in efficacy between the effects of treatment with omega-3 and omega-6 PUFAs [fatty acids] on the outcome of SCI [spinal cord injury], with omega-3 PUFAs being neuroprotective and omega-6 PUFAs having a damaging effect.” (King VR et al. 2006)
Her team also found that the sooner injured animals got DHA, the stronger the protection … and that continued feeding of DHA enhanced long-term recovery. (See Curry Spice + Omega-3 Curbed Spine Injuries in Rats.)
We also saw a presentation by Professor Nicolas Bazan, M.D., Ph.D., of Harvard University, whose lab reported that omega-3s protect rats against stroke damage … see Omega-3 DHA Protected Rats from Stroke Damage.
Now, Bobby Ghassemi’s story adds weight to the notion that omega-3s protect our noggins.
Because lab research renders its remarkable outcome – like that of miner McCloy’s case – biologically plausible, it should prompt urgent research by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense.
These two cases should also prompt the FDA to grant a "compassionate use” permit to administer omega-3 DHA to brain-injured patients … as the agency has partially, slowly done for premature babies living on IV nutrition (see Preemies Saved by Omega-3s, FDA Drags Feet).
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