Traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) results in debilitating autonomic dysfunctions, paralysis and significant sensorimotor impairments. A key component of SCI is the generation of free radicals that contributes to the high levels of oxidative stress observed. This study investigates whether dietary supplementation with the antioxidant vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) improves functional recovery after SCI. Female adult Sprague-Dawley rats were fed either with a normal diet or a dietary regiment supplemented with vitamin E (51 IU/g) for eight weeks. The rats were subsequently exposed either to a contusive SCI or sham operation, and evaluated using standard functional behavior analysis. We report that the rats that consumed the vitamin E-enriched diet showed an accelerated bladder recovery and significant improvements in locomotor function relative to controls, as determined by residual volumes and Basso, Beatie, and Bresnaham BBB scores, respectively. Interestingly, the prophylactic dietary intervention did not preserve neurons in the ventral horn of injured rats, but it significantly increased the numbers of oligodendrocytes. Vitamin E supplementation attenuated the depression of the H-reflex (a typical functional consequence of SCI) while increasing the levels of supraspinal serotonin immunoreactivity. Our findings support the potential complementary use of vitamin E to ameliorate sensory and autonomic dysfunctions associated with spinal cord injury, and identified promising new cellular and functional targets of its neuroprotective effects.
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