The exciting outcomes of a UCLA study support and expand on hopeful signs that began emerging several years ago.
Earlier animal research from UCLA and the UK indicated that omega-3 DHA can blunt the effects of brain or spine injuries and enhance recovery.
And in parallel research, the yellow pigment in turmeric (curcumin) – which also gives curry its characteristic sunny hue – had begun showing promise as a brain- and nerve-protector.
In addition to encouragement from the previous studies described below (see “New findings build on prior positive research”), the UCLA team had good reason to believe that these two common food factors could help protect spine health.
Omega-3 DHA helps protect and repair damage to cell membranes, moderate and resolve inflammation, and promote production of chemicals that foster nerve growth and connections.
Curcumin displays strong anti-inflammatory effects, and has demonstrated considerable tissue-protection and -repair capacities.
“The brain and spinal cord work together, and years of research demonstrates that supplements like DHA and curcumin can positively influence the brain,” said study co-author Fernando Gomez-Pinilla. Ph.D. “We suspected that what works in the brain may also work in the spinal cord.” (Schmidt E/UCLA 2012)
New findings build on prior positive research
Several years ago, we came across two studies regarding the potential for fishy omega-3 DHA and colorful curcumin to blunt the effects of brain damage.
A team from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) had reported that both curcumin and DHA – one of the two key omega-3s in fish fat – independently blunted the bad effects of brain injuries in rats (Wu A et al. 2004; Wu A et al. 2006).
As we wrote in 2006, “… rats … that had been eating curcumin had much less oxidative damage to their brains, and it seemed to counteract the cognitive impairment caused by the conk on the head … [while] mice fed fish oil before being conked on the head enjoyed similar protection from the ill effects of head trauma.”
(See “Turmeric Power, Part II: Curry Spice May Curb Alzheimer's” and scroll down to the section titled “Conked on the head? Eat fish, take turmeric”.)
Since then, evidence that DHA – the omega-3 that's critical to brain/nerve development and functions – has continued to pile up … see “Miner's Miracle Leads Stellar Omega-3 Summary”, “Fish Fat Curbed Rat's Brain Injuries”, “Sugary Brain Damage Blunted by Omega-3s”, “Omega-3 Curbed Traumatic Brain Injury in Rats”, and “Fish Fats Boost Brain Resilience”.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a group from Queen Mary University of London has been reporting remarkable recovery-enhancing effects in rodents given omega-3 DHA after a spine injury … orally, intravenously, and/or by injection (King VR et al. 2006; Michael-Titus AT 2007; Huang WL et al. 2007).
Last month, 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 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)
They also found that timing was critical … the sooner the animals got DHA, the stronger the protection from disability. And continued feeding of DHA during the following weeks enhanced the animals' long-term recovery.
Now, the same UCLA team reports that a diet enriched with omega-3 DHA and curcumin markedly protected walking ability in rats given a common, aging-related form of spinal degeneration (Holly LT et al. 2012).
Together, these two common food factors helped repair the animals' nerve cells and preserve their neurological functions from the effects of degenerative damage to the neck.
Curcumin + omega-3 DHA protected spine-injured rats' walking ability
The UCLA team compared healthy rats to two groups of rats that underwent surgery designed to induce a degenerative spinal disorder often seen in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis.
The condition – called cervical spondylotic myelopathy (CSM) – can lead to disabling 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.
According to neurosurgeon and UCLA study leader Langston Holly, M.D., “Normal aging often narrows the spinal canal, putting pressure on the spinal cord and injuring tissue. While surgery can relieve the pressure and prevent further injury, it can't repair damage to the cells and nerve fibers. We wanted to explore whether dietary supplementation could help the spinal cord heal itself.” (Schmidt E/UCLA 2012)
The rats with simulated CSM were divided into two groups:
  • Group 1 (standard American diet) – received a rat chow high in saturated fats and sugar.
  • Group 2 (DHA + curcumin) – received a rat chow enriched with omega-3 DHA and curcumin.
The researchers recorded the rats' walking behavior while they were healthy. After the animals underwent an injury designed to simulate the effects of CSM, the UCLA team re-examined the animals' gait on a weekly basis.
As early as three weeks after simulated CSM was induced, the rats in Group 1 – who were eating a chow that mimicked the standard American diet – demonstrated measurable walking problems that worsened as the study progressed.
The rats in Group 2 – those fed a diet enriched with DHA and curcumin – walked significantly better than those in Group 1, even six weeks after the study's start.
Curcumin + omega-3 DHA also protected rats' spinal nerve cells
Next, the scientists examined the injured rats' spinal cords to see how the two differing diets might affect their injury on a molecular level.
They measured levels of three markers respectively linked to cell-membrane damage, neural repair, and nerve-cell communication: 4-HNE, BDNF, and syntaxin-3.
The rats that ate the standard American diet showed higher levels of the marker (4-HNE) linked to cell-membrane damage.
In contrast, DHA and curcumin appeared to offset the injury's effect, with the rats in Group 2 displaying damage-marker (4-HNE) levels equivalent to those seen in the control group.
Levels of the markers linked to neural repair and cellular communication (BDNF and syntaxin-3) were significantly lower in the rats raised on the Western diet.
In contrast, levels in the animals fed the DHA-curcumin supplemented diet appeared similar to those of the control group.
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.” (Schmidt E/UCLA 2012)
Our findings suggest that diet can help minimize disease-related changes and repair damage to the spinal cord,” Holly said.” (Schmidt E/UCLA 2012)
Their research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation.
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Key Points
  • Feed enriched with curcumin and omega-3 DHA preserved walking ability in rats with age-related spinal degeneration.
  • Findings build on positive outcomes of prior animal experiments, and fit with the known effects of both nutrients.
  • Earlier research showed that while omega-3s reduced the adverse effects of spinal cord injuries, omega-6 fats actually worsened the damage.