Animal experiments suggest that taking the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexanoic acid (DHA) might offer a new way of protecting against traumatic brain injury (TBI), reports the February issue of Neurosurgery, official journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. The journal is published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, a part of Wolters Kluwer Health, a leading provider of information and business intelligence for students, professionals, and institutions in medicine, nursing, allied health, and pharmacy.
Although only preliminary, the results raise the "intriguing" possibility of preventive treatment with DHA in groups at high risk of TBI, such as military personnel and athletes in contact sports—including football players. The lead author is Dr. Julian E. Bailes of West Virginia University, Morgantown.
Less Damage After Brain Trauma in Animals Given DHA
In the experiment, rats were treated with DHA at varying doses, equivalent to those used in humans taking DHA supplements. After one month of treatment, tissue and behavioral responses to induced TBI were compared between groups of treated animals.
The tissue damage caused by TBI was significantly reduced in rats taking the highest dose of DHA: 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Cellular findings included a significant reduction in expression of a protein (beta amyloid protein) that has been implicated in the development of Alzheimer's disease.
Animals receiving the highest dose of DHA before TBI also had reduced expression of key indicators of brain cell death (caspase 3 and macrophages). The DHA-treated rats also performed better on a test of spatial memory, indicating less behavioral impairment.
Recent research has suggested that treatment with omega-3 fatty acids could help to improve the outcomes of TBI. Docosahexanoic acid is one of the main fatty acids found in the brain, where it may play a number of "neuroprotective" roles.
The new study adds to recent evidence suggesting that DHA may be the first treatment of any type to reduce brain tissue damage caused by TBI. This omega-3 fatty acid is widely available from an algae or fish oil source. The DHA supplement used in the study was isolated from algae species.
The results are especially timely in the face of heightened concern about the effects of TBI—including damage caused by repeated concussions—in football players. Recent studies have linked repeated head trauma in athletes to a progressive degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is conducting a study to determine whether DHA affects long-term brain function in retired National Football League players. (That study is funded by Martek Biosciences Corporation, for which Dr. Bailes serves as a consultant.)
The new study raises the possibility that DHA supplements could routinely be given to groups at high risk of TBI. This could include athletes in football and other contact sports, military personnel, as well as young children and older adults. Other groups of patients, such as those at high risk of stroke, might also benefit from preventive treatment with DHA.
"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 TBI, has tremendous public health implications," Dr. Bailes and coauthors write. However, they emphasize that more research will be needed to determine the true benefits, if any, of preventive treatment with DHA.