Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Turmeric Protect from Spinal Injury

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) found in high concentration in krill oils and cold water fish oils. There are three major types of omega-3 fatty acids that are ingested in foods and used by the body: Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and DH). Once eaten, the body converts ALA to EPA and then to DHA. EPA and DHA are the two types of omega-3 fatty acids that serve as important precursors for lipid-derived modulators of cell signaling, gene expression and inflammatory processes. For more details on the functions of DHA and EPA visit the Omega Fatty Acids page within The Medical Biochemistry Page or in the Supplement Sciences site. Among many physiological benefits, DHA and EPA have been shown to be important for normal brain development and function. Several studies have demonstrated that DHA is essential for proper development of the prenatal and postnatal central nervous system. In addition, studies have shown that dietary supplementation with DHA has beneficial effects on cerebral function and enhancing neural repair of damage caused by pathological processes.

Curcumin (chemical name diferuloylmethane) is the yellow compound found in the spice turmeric. Curcumin has been shown to suppress tumor promotion and proliferation, inflammatory signaling, and angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels). The anti-inflammatory activity of curcumin is, in part, due to its ability to inhibit enzymes that are necessary for the synthesis of lipid mediators of inflammation. Recent studies have also shown that curcumin has therapeutic potential within the CNS in the treatment of Alzheimer disease and ischemic stroke. More details on the activities of curcumin can be found inthe Antioxidants page of the Supplement Science website.

A recent study published on June 26, 2012 in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine (http://thejns.org/doi/abs/10.3171/2012.5.SPINE1216) has demonstrated a potentially powerful function for these two chemically distinct compounds in the treatment and prevention of further damage in spinal cord injury patients. The studies were performed in ratsbut are applicable to human patients. Cervical spondylotic myelopathy (CSM) is the result of both primary mechanical and secondary biological spinal cord injury (SCI). In the study rats were surgically treated to produce a spinal compression injury via bilateral partial laminectomy in the cervical spine. I am of course greatly abbreviating the details of the spinal injury model used and it is necessary to read the manuscript to fully appreciate these details. Treated animals divided into 3 groups and were fed either a standard rat chow, a diet that replicated a Western society style diet (composed of 62% saturated fats and 32% sucrose), or a diet containing DHA (1.2%) plus 500ppm curcumin. The outcomes of this study were analyzed using a number of well established criteria to document spinal cord pathology and function. The takehome is indeed quite dramatic. The rats that received the DHA and curcumin containing diet maintained significantly higher levels of the neural growth factor brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), exhibited decreased cellular membrane damage, and preserved significant neurological function when compared to the Western-style diet or the normal rat chow diet.

These results indicate that there is significant potential for the use of dietary supplementation in the treatment of some forms of spinal cord injury. It is important to note that these studies were performed to mimic spinal crush injuries and not injury that results in partial or complete severing of spinal cord neurons. Still, the result are compelling and it is worth considering supplementation of ones diet with DHA and curcumin even without injury to the spine given the plethora of positive physiological and biochemical functions associated with these compounds.

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