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Take blue M&Ms and call me in the morning ...

July 29, 2009 | 12:05 pm

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After a traumatic spinal cord injury, only some of the damage occurs right away. Most of the loss occurs over the next six hours or so, as a substance called ATP floods the spinal cord and wipes out neurons near the site of the wound.

Researchers have been looking for a way to halt the flood of ATP and minimize the damage from these injuries. Now a team from the University of Rochester Medical Center has found it in a surprising place.

Dr. Maiken Nedergaard and colleagues at the university’s Center for Translational Neuromedicine report this week that the food dye that makes M&Ms and Gatorade blue significantly boosted the recovery of rats with spinal cord injuries.

The researchers induced paraplegia in the rats by dropping a 10-gram weight on their spines. Some of the injured animals were given intravenous doses of Brilliant blue G – also known as BBG – immediately and for three days afterward.  The treated rats had more complete recoveries than their untreated counterparts. The pace of their recovery was also faster, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Among the rats who got BBG, the ones with the best outcomes were able to coordinate movement of their front and back legs and take normal steps six weeks after their injuries. The untreated rats took normal steps only occasionally and never regained their front-and-back leg coordination, according to the study.

The researchers believe that BBG worked because it was able to block ATP from latching on to spinal cord neurons. ATP usually is welcome in cells because it provides the chemical energy needed to fuel metabolism. But when it gushes into the spinal cord at hundreds of times greater than normal levels, it causes neurons to go haywire and die, thus compounding the extent of the injury.

Nedergaard realized that BBG is a derivative of blue dye No. 1, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics. The dye is a widely used food additive – more than 1 million pounds of it are consumed each year in the U.S. with no toxic side effects in healthy people. In the rats, the only apparent side effect of taking BBG was a blue tint in the eyes and skin that faded over the course of a week.

The researchers cautioned that, at the moment, chowing down on blue M&Ms and Gatorade wouldn’t necessarily stave off paralysis after an acute spinal cord injury. But they said they were hopeful that the research would lead to an effective treatment in the next few years.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Could this sports drink treat spinal cord injuries? Credit: Peter Newcomb/Bloomberg News

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