Fish Oil For Traumatic Brain Injury?

fish oil for traumatic brain injury

The interest in using high doses of fish oil to treat victims of mild to severe traumatic brain injury (“TBI”) has been mounting recently, as previously anecdotal accounts of efficacy are being replaced by a surge of new research and a continually improving basic understanding of the neurochemical pathways involved in TBIs. This focus is not surprising, since fish oil is widely-available and TBI is considered the leading cause of mortality for people under age 45, with approximately 52,000 deaths annually in the US alone.

Fish Oil For Traumatic Brain Injury & Inflammation.

Fish oil, a natural anti-inflammatory agent, seems a logical fit in terms of treating TBIs given the theory behind brain inflammation itself. While not well-understood, there is substantial evidence that brain injuries initiate a release of neurotransmitters that instigate an acute immune response that includes neuronal inflammation and impairment of mitochondrial function. Moreover, it’s been shown that these adverse reactions also occur in response to milder, sub-concussive injuries.

Fish oil, and more specifically, the DHA and EPA it contains, is one of several of the most promising natural supplements believed to be efficacious in treating patients following brain trauma. As discussed previously, these two fatty acids are vital for membrane function, particularly those associated with nerve cells. It is believed that these acids keep membranes fluid and help facilitate cell communication and control cellular inflammatory response.

Fish Oil to Treat Traumatic Brain Injury: The Data & Exciting Early Reports

The most conclusive data to date establishing a link between fish oil supplementation and the restoration of brain function post-TBI is from animal models. One of the most compelling studies published in the Journal of Neurosurgery seems to establish a clear link between brain trauma and the restorative effects of EPA/DHA in rats.

A total of 40 rates were separated into four groups. Three groups received a simulated impact injury and the fourth served as a control (non-impacted) group. Two of the three “impact” groups were given either 10 or 40 mg/kg of Omega 3, and the third impact (like the control) group was given no supplement. Supplementation was conducted for 30 days, after which time the animals were euthanized and a variety of brain/immunochemical analyses targeting markers for neuronal/mitochondrial damage were performed. The researchers found that that the rats receiving Omega 3 exhibited significantly lower levels of these damage markers compared to the impact groups not receiving supplementation. In fact, the treated rats had biochemical profiles no different than the rats that had received no impact at all. These data seem to confirm earlier 2007 study that also supported Omega 3’s restorative effect on neuronal homeostasis following rat-simulated TBI.

Similarly, a more recent 2013 trial published in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience demonstrated that Omega 3 supplementation administered to rats before they were subjected to repeated, mild traumatic brain injuries (similar to those experienced by human athletes) resulted in faster body weight recovery and improved performance in cognitive testing post-trauma relative the control group.

While there is a comparative paucity of human research on the subject, the anecdotal reports of the effects of higher doses of fish oil for victims of TBI are extremely promising. For example the news reports of a 17 year old’s dramatic recovery after a near fatal car crash, and a 16 year-old’s miraculous turn around after a hit and run, both of whom received high doses of Omega 3 fish oil as a “last resort”, definitely fit within the data obtained from animal models and give new hope to a large demographic of patients that traditional science may have otherwise given up on.

Featured (top) photo credit: “human brain on white background” by _DJ_ under CC BY-SA 2.0