An American study has demonstrated the beneficial effect of injections of omega-3 fatty acids on the brains of mice affected by stroke at birth. The discovery could pave the way for new treatments for infant and adult stroke victims.

Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) evaluated the neurological health of mice at 24 hours, and at eight and nine weeks, after brain injury was sustained. Typically, strokes can result in damage to control of motor functions, sensitivity to pain, vision and, in humans, the ability to use language.

The team injected ten-day-old mice who had suffered from strokes at birth with an emulsion containing EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), two polyunsaturated fatty acids of the omega-3 family, which are present in abundance in cold-water oceanic fish.

These fatty acids, which also form part of the composition of certain oils, such as rapeseed and walnut oil, are present in small quantities in everyday diets. In the course of previous scientific tests, cod liver oil proved to be effective in protecting organs that had been deprived of oxygen by reducing inflammation and cell death.

On the day following treatment, mice who had received an injection of DHA showed a significant reduction in brain injury. And in the following weeks, the group of "DHA mice" demonstrated better brain function than mice in the untreated control group.

Researchers also noted an increase in the concentration of DHA in cerebral mitochondria, energy-producing sub-units within cells that can be damaged by free radicals when the flow of blood to the brain is re-established in the wake of a stroke. This phenomenon, known as "reperfusion injury", is one of the causes of brain damage when cells have been deprived of oxygen and nutrients.

"Our findings suggest that injecting the omega-3 fatty acid DHA after a stroke-like event has the ability to protect brain mitochondria against the damaging effects of free radicals," said Vadim S. Ten, a pediatrician and co-author of the study.

The interruption of the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain during or shortly after birth is a major cause of brain damage in newborns, which engenders irreversible neurological effects in more than 25 per cent of cases. Scientists explain that the phenomenon is identical to the occurrence of a stroke in adults.

The next step, for which clinical trials will be required, is to determine if the rapid administration of lipid emulsions containing DHA in the wake of a stroke will result in similar neuroprotective action in human infants and adults. According to the researchers, if the tests prove to be effective, a new treatment could be on the way.

The average age of those suffering a stroke is 73: age 70 for men and age 76 for women. Some risk factors for stroke are old age, family history, diabetes, high blood pressure, tobacco use, high levels of cholesterol, excessive weight and obesity.

However, strokes can also affect infants in utero, newborns and older children, for reasons that, for the most part, have yet to be elucidated. Some 70 per cent of juvenile stroke victims suffer from permanent handicap.

More information on the study can be found here.