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David Geffen School of Medicine

Can Diet Help Heal Spinal-Cord Injury?

A diet supplemented with a particular omega-3 fatty acid and curcumin, a compound in the Indian spice turmeric, may help to repair nerve cells. A diet supplemented with a particular omega-3 fatty acid and curcumin, a compound in the Indian spice turmeric, may help to repair nerve cells.

UCLA researchers have discovered that a diet enriched with a popular omega-3 fatty acid and an ingredient in curry spice helps to preserve walking ability in rats with damaged spinal cords. The findings suggest that these dietary supplements help repair nerve cells and maintain neurological function after degenerative damage to the neck.

The findings were published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.

"Normal aging often narrows the spinal canal, putting pressure on the spinal cord and injuring tissue," says Langston Holly, M.D. '95, associate professor of neurosurgery. "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 if dietary supplementation could help the spinal cord heal itself."

The UCLA team studied two groups of rats with a condition that simulated cervical myelopathy - a progressive disorder that often occurs in people with spine-weakening conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis. It can lead to difficulty walking, neck and arm pain, hand numbness and weakness of the limbs.

One group of animals was fed rat chow that replicated a Western diet high in saturated fats and sugar. Another group consumed a standard diet supplemented with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) - an omega-3 fatty acid shown to repair damage to cell membranes - and curcumin, a compound in turmeric, an Indian curry spice that is a strong antioxidant that previous studies have linked to tissue repair. Both reduce inflammation. A third set of rats received a standard rat diet as a control group.

The researchers recorded a baseline of the rats walking and re-examined the animals' gait on a weekly basis. Rats fed the DHA- and curcumin- enriched diet walked significantly better than the first group. When they studied the rats' spinal cords, the animals that ate the Western diet showed higher levels of a marker linked to cell-membrane damage, while the ones on the DHA and curcumin diet displayed marker levels that were equivalent to the control group. Levels of markers linked to neural repair and cellular communication in the animals fed the supplemented diet also appeared similar to those of the control group.

Says co-author Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, Ph.D. '86, professor of neurosurgery: "This is an exciting first step toward understanding the role that diet plays in protecting the body from degenerative disease."


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