We just attended three conferences where researchers offered more evidence that omega-3s can blunt the effects of head and spine injuries … and enhance recovery.
Frankly, we think the positive results seen so far demand urgent attention from the public health community, emergency medical centers, the U.S. military, and parents.
Human research is needed, and soon. Controlled clinical trials are ideal, but present ethical challenges when the animal-derived evidence is this strong.
We can at least expect “case-control” studies, which would compare the blood-fat profiles of people who suffer a traumatic brain injury to their short- and long-term outcomes.
The presentations we saw covered numerous studies of the effects of omega-3s in reducing the impacts of brain injuries … let's start by looking at two.
Kansas study finds omega-3 DHA protect rats' brains from blows
This rat study looked for any effects of omega-3-rich diets on the outcomes of traumatic brain injuries.
As the authors wrote in a preamble, “Children under 5 years of age are at particular risk of suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and tend to have poorer outcomes than adults.” (Levant B et al.)
And they explained why they wanted to conduct their own test of fish fat: “Long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids have been shown to have beneficial effects in a variety of models of neural injury in adult animals.” (Levant B et al.)
By “long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids” they mean EPA and DHA … the two major omega-3s in fish, prevent essential to human life and optimal health.
The Kansas team presented their encouraging findings to us and other attendees at the May, 2012 meeting of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) in Vancouver, Canada.
They divided 24 pregnant rats into two groups:
The scientists then tested the effects of these maternal diets on the offspring from the mothers' first and second litters.
The first pups born to mothers whose diet lacked adequate omega-3s had 25 percent less DHA in their brains, while the offspring of the mothers' second mating had 54 percent less brain DHA.
On day 17 after birth, the offspring received a controlled traumatic brain injury (TBI) to the sensorimotor cortex region of the brain … or, as a control, sham surgery with no effect on brain health.
The “toddler” rats then underwent tests of their “sensorimotor” function at one-week intervals, ending with a test 28 days after the real or placebo injury.
The TBI produced persistent flaws in the pups' agility and endurance … and these brain injuries were worse among the second litter born to the omega-3 deficient mothers.
As we said, the second litter had much less brain DHA than the first litter, and even less than the pups born to mothers with adequate omega-3 DHA in their diet.
The authors came to three encouraging – or distressing, given the low omega-3 intake by Americans – conclusions (Levant B et al.):
“These findings indicate that a diet-induced decrease in brain DHA content contributes to poorer sensorimotor outcomes after TBI in juvenile rats.”
“Furthermore, brain DHA level, rather than dietary omega-3 … content, appears to be the primary factor influencing TBI outcomes.”
“This suggests that outcomes after TBI in young children may be improved by ensuring adequate brain DHA levels through appropriate nutrition.”
In other words, fish and fish oil can serve as a biological “helmet”, blunting the impact of brain injuries in their most common victims … young children.
We need to urgently test and measure the protective effects of omega-3 DHA in people, as positive findings would be of great value to soldiers, contact athletes, and any occupations where people risk brain injury.
Other beneficiaries of any protective effects of fish fat include automobile occupants, cyclists, and skaters … in fact, almost everyone.
Chinese study tests omega-3s against bacterial injury to rats' brains
The other study we want to summarize today scrutinized the effects of omega-3s against toxins from infectious “gram negative” bacteria.
This class of bacteria includes E. coli, Salmonella, ulcer-causing Helicobacter, and the bacteria behind gonorrhoeae, meningitis, and many other diseases.
Inflammation plays an important role in the brain injuries or “neuro-degenerations” triggered by toxins in these bacterium's outer membranes.
Ironically, some of this brain damage results from activation of immune cells in the brain called microglia … which form the first and main line of microbial defense in the brain and central nervous system.
Toxins in gram-negative bacterium called lipopolysaccharides (“fatty sugars”) activate the microglia … and the resulting inflammation particularly impacts brain cells needed to produce a critical neurotransmitter called dopamine.
Accordingly, interventions that prevent activation of microglia in response to lipopolysaccharide toxins have proven an effective strategy against their toxic impacts in the brain.
The Chinese team set out to see whether feeding rats a diet rich in omega-3s would prevent activation of microglia cells in the brains of rats exposed to lipopolysaccharide-type bacterial toxins.
As hoped, omega-3s kept the bacterial toxin from switching on a pro-inflammatory gene called Nf-kappaB by, which in turn activates microglia cells, causing unintended but damaging side effects on brain cells.
As the Chinese team wrote, “… our results provided the first in vivo (animal) evidence that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids can inhibit the damage of [dopamine-producing] neurons induced by [bacterial] lipopolysaccharide [toxins] …” (Ailing Jia et al 2012)
It's this kind of effect that may explain the dramatic effect of omega-3s in one meningitis victim, whose parents insisted that the ICU doctors administer omega-3s.
(See “Meningitis Breakthrough”, which did not mention that aspect of the story because its highly positive outcome only became clear later.)
She enjoyed a full recovery ... an outcome the rehab experts treating her called unprecedented and amazing for a person who'd reached her advanced stage of bacterial meningitis.
We hasten to add that this personal story, which we witnessed up close, proves nothing because it is anecdotal in nature.
But considered against the background of the growing number of positive studies in rats with brain injuries, the goal of ensuring ample omega-3 intake by all children and teens seems like a “no-brainer”.
Ailing Jia et al. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids inhibit lipopolysaccharide-induced microglial activation and dopaminergic injury in rats. NeuroToxicology. Available online 8 March 2012
Levant B, Russell KJ, Berman NEJ. Effects of diet-induced decreases in brain DHA content on outcomes in a rat model of juvenile traumatic brain injury. University of Kansas Medical Center, USA. Presented at the 10th Congress of the ISSFAL, 26 May – 30 May 2012, Vancouver, Canada.