Studies with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) have shown that these compounds have therapeutic potential in several indications in neurology and psychiatry. Acute spinal cord injury (SCI) is an event with devastating consequences, and no satisfactory treatment is available at present. The pathogenetic mechanisms associated with SCI include excitotoxicity, increased oxidation and inflammation.

We review here our recent studies, which suggest that omega-3 PUFA have significant neuroprotective potential in spinal cord trauma. In a first study, we administered an intravenous bolus of alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) or docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) 30 min after spinal cord hemisection injury in adult rats. The omega-3 PUFA led to increased neuronal and glial survival, and a significantly improved neurological outcome. In subsequent studies, we tested DHA in a more severe compression model of SCI. We also explored a combined acute and chronic treatment regime using DHA. Saline or DHA was administered intravenously 30 min after compression of the spinal cord. After injury, the saline group received a standard control diet, whereas DHA-injected animals received either a control or a DHA-enriched diet for 6 weeks following injury. We assessed locomotor recovery and analysed markers for cell survival and axonal damage, and we also investigated the effects of the treatment on the inflammatory reaction and the oxidative stress that follow SCI.

We showed that the acute DHA treatment is neuroprotective after compression SCI, even if the treatment is delayed up to an hour after injury. The DHA injection led to an increased neuronal and glial cell survival, and the effect of the DHA injection was amplified by addition of DHA to the diet. Rats treated with a DHA injection and a DHA-enriched diet performed significantly better at 6 weeks in terms of neurological outcome. The analysis of the tissue after DHA administration showed that the fatty acid significantly reduced lipid peroxidation, protein oxidation and RNA/DNA oxidation, and the induction of COX-2. Parallel studies in a facial nerve injury model in mice also showed pro-regenerative effects of chronic dietary administration of DHA after nerve lesion. These observations suggest that treatment with omega-3 PUFA could represent a promising therapeutic approach in the management of neurological injury.