The BCAAs, Leucine, isoleucine and valine, are important amino acids not merely because of their role in protein synthesis and promoting muscle mass, but they have other actions. Often we think of them as signaling molecules in muscle working through mTOR, promoting anabolism and repair.
From this there are applications in body composition changes (promote leanness) as well recovery and repair. However a recent mouse study from researchers in Philadelphia and Portland have suggested that there are benefits in managing cognitive impairment resulting from traumatic brain injury.
Traumatic brain injury establishes an oxidative burst and inflammatory response. But critically, as seen in stroke, there is a biphasic response where there is secondary damage in the latter phase, often associated with the release of excitatory neurotransmitters.
The researchers noted that following a lateral percussion injury (simply put a severe bang to the head) that there was brain injury, particularly to the hippocampal region. This was associated with cognitive impairment. BCAA therapy was able to ameliorate this impairment when measured at 5 or 10 days after the injury, but for full benefits it did require continued administration.
There are some pretty profound implications from this laboratory research. The full restoration of cognition after a traumatic injury is impressive, no matter what the therapeutic agent. But for it to be well known amino acids whose previous applications focused on muscle strength and performance is truly enlightening.
One could make the case for BCAAs to be routine as a pre-administration approach to sports activities as there would be wide benefits on performance and if there was a concussion then potentially damage would be limited.The newsworthy aspects of concussion-induced encephalopathy (cognitive decline associated with sports concussions) is intriguing.
By association it may be possible that other forms of cognitive decline could be suppressed, including aging related dementia. It is speculation as we do not know how the BCAAs work for these applications, but connecting the dots suggest that there are potentially broad benefits for a range of conditions.
Beyond that the research challenges us to think differently about a problem, which is where true advancement occurs. While the herd grazes away at the routine, the lateral thinkers are carving out new terrain. This may be a mere mouse study, but I see a candle shining light on important breakthroughs and I encourage others to see its flickering in the background while the spotlight of BCAAs is mired in muscle enhancement.