Some strange and unique treatments VA is exploring

Jonathan Kaupanger
October 08, 2018 - 4:35 pm

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Could a common spice found in your kitchen make you a better learner? And its possible that the bacteria from feces could actually make you feel better? These are just some of the treatments being researched by Veterans Affairs as part of their effort to expand complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). 

Complementary and alternative medicine is most often used to improve mental health, manage pain or promote general wellness.  You may have heard of or even participated in a few of the more common forms of treatment like yoga, acupuncture or meditation. Veterans Affairs is looking to expand that list and some of the possibilities may surprise you. 

  • Cinnamon for the brain.  At the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago, researchers found that the spice cinnamon turns poor learners into good ones.  Right now the studies are just using mice, but researchers hope to turn this benefit over for humans soon.

During the study, poor-learning mice took about 150 seconds to find the correct hole in a maze test.  After a month of being fed cinnamon, mice found the right hole within 60 seconds.  Researchers believe that cinnamon acts as a slow-release form of sodium benzoate.  This is a chemical produced as the spice is broken down in the body.  Sodium benzoate enters the brain and stimulates the hippocampus, which is why the mice became smarter.

  • Fecal transplant treatment.  This is exactly what it sounds like, the procedure involves removing stool containing healthy bacteria from a donor and inserting it into a sick patient. 

First, VA’s scientists looked at information of over 500 patients with C. difficile infections.  In over 85 percent of patients, fecal transplantation was successful in treating recurring infections.

Next, researchers from the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center worked with cirrhosis patients who also suffered from a brain disorder that is a common complication of the liver disease.  Transplanting stool improved brain functioning, reduced confusion and resulted in fewer hospitalizations.  The study shows that even with very sick patients, fecal transplants are safe and may improve brain functioning.

  • Turmeric and cancer treatment.  A key compound in the spice turmeric is curcumin and this is being researched at two different VAMCs to treat two different illnesses. 

At the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center, researchers found that curcumin might lead to better cognition and even elevate the moods for veterans with GWI. In the study, rats with simulated GWI symptoms were given either curcumin or a placebo for 30 days.  Besides better cognitive and mood functions, the rat’s given curcumin had better growth and development of nerve tissue and less inflammation than the placebo group.

Curcumin is being explored for its anti-cancer treatment at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. Partnering with researchers in China, the team is looking into a combination chemotherapy drug containing curcumin and campothecin, which comes from the bark and stems of tree native to China.  The team delivered the combination to a colon cancer cell via a nanoparticle.  They believe this could be a viable way to target cancer cells without damage to other tissues.

  • Fish oil. As a way to treat Alzheimer’s disease, researchers are studying how fish oil alters early changes to the brain associated with Alzheimer’s.  The study, set to end in 2021 calls for volunteers to take an 18-month regimen of eicosapentaenoic acid, which is an omega-3 fatty acid found in cold water fish.  While on the study, volunteers undergo a series of brain imaging scans, lumbar punctures to retrieve spinal fluid and memory and problem-solving tests. 

Fish oil was found to improve and sometimes even reverse nerve damage in the eyes of diabetic rats at the VA Iowa City Health Care System.  The effects were even better when fish oil was combined with a-lipoic acid, which is an antioxidant found in the body and the blood pressure medicine enalapril.  The researchers hope to use this in the future as a way to treat other vascular and neural complications of type 2 diabetes.

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