Research suggests fish oil might protect against brain trauma

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    Some Texas Christian University Horned Frogs football players took part in a study testing if fish oil could help reduce the effects of head trauma. (Photo courtesy of JPS)

    Some Texas Christian University Horned Frogs football players took part in a study testing if fish oil could help reduce the effects of head trauma. (Photo courtesy of JPS)

    As football’s link to CTE strengthens, players and coaches go looking for prevention, one stinky spoonful at a time.

    In March, the National Football League admitted for the first time that football is linked to brain damage. It’s something researchers have documented for years, and now, a new study conducted at Texas Christian University shows a component of fish oil could help reduce the brain-damaging effects of head trauma.

    While some college students were taking shots at Texas Christian University tailgate parties in 2014, some of TCU’s Horned Frogs football players were downing shots of fish oil…in the name of science.

    “We had to find the right mixture that would be palatable, because it certainly has a little bit of a fishy odor,” says Dr. Michele Kirk, director of Sports Medicine at JPS Health Network and team physician at TCU. Kirk co-led the study looking at the effect of DHA–an Omega-3 fatty acid–on brain trauma.

    In the double-blind study of 81 football players, more than 60 started taking DHA at the beginning of the summer of 2014 and were monitored over the course of a season.

    Kirk and her team wanted to see whether DHA helped protect the athlete’s brains. To do so, they focused on a biological indicator of brain trauma called neurofilament light. Research shows neurofilament light increases as the number of physical impacts increase. In other words, the more hits on the field, the more neurofilament light in the blood. So the question: Could DHA lower levels of neurofilament light?

    “If they were on the DHA, they had a 40 percent reduction in that neurofilament compared to those that were on the placebo,” Kirk says. “That may indicate that DHA can be protective against some brain trauma.”

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    David Gable, assistant athletic director for Sports Medicine at TCU; Michelle Kirk, MD, director of Sports Medicine at JPS Health Network and team physician at TCU; Jonathan Oliver, PhD, assistant professor in TCU’s Department of Kinesiology. (Courtesy of Texas Christian University)

    The protective qualities of DHA have been shown in animal studies, but this new research–published in January in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise–is the first that finds the same might be true for humans.

    Dr. Floyd Ski Chilton, professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, was impressed by the study.

    “For the DHA to have this type of effect, that’s quite striking and quite promising,” he says.

    “DHA is probably a lot more important in adolescence and later development than we first thought,” Chilton says. “We certainly first focused all on the third trimester of pregnancy when the brain was growing so much and that’s a proven area, but we’re now beginning to understand it’s important in childhood and adolescence.”

    Chilton says it’s possible omega-3 supplements like DHA could help protect athletes’ brains by preventing inflammation associated with injuries. Both Chilton and Michele Kirk agree they need to try and replicate the findings to give the research more credibility.

    Before you rush off to buy omega-3 or fish oil supplements, though, Kirk says keep in mind all formulations are different. A typical capsule might contain just a small percentage of DHA–not the pure fishy stuff the Horned Frogs will be downing next season.

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