Blue Food Dye Helps Rats With Spinal Injuries–But Also Turns Them Blue

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2009 10:00 am

blue ratA chemical compound similar to the blue food dye found in blue M&Ms and blue Gatorade could one day be used to treat people with spinal injuries, and could reduce damage and improve mobility, according to a new study. Researchers found that when they injected the compound Brilliant Blue G (BBG) into rats suffering spinal cord injuries, the rodents were able to walk again, albeit with a limp. The only side effect was that the treated mice temporarily turned blue [CNN].

The same research team had previously shown that ATP, a vital energy source that keeps the body’s cells alive, quickly pours into the area surrounding a spinal cord injury after it occurs. Unfortunately, the release of ATP at hundreds of times the normal level kills off healthy, uninjured motor neuron cells by flooding them with a deluge of molecular signals, making the initial injury worse [BBC News]. In the new experiment, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the blue compound prevented ATP from latching on to the motor neuron cells, and therefore prevented the secondary damage that occurs in the hours after a spine injury.

Lead researcher Maiken Nedergaard says the work could lead to a medical breakthrough. “We have no treatment at all right now for most patients with spinal cord injury,” she said. “Right now we’re just observing patients get worse” []. What’s more, since the FDA approved the closely related food additive known as blue dye No. 1 in 1928, there’s almost a century of proof showing that the compound is safe. “Each of us in United States eats about 14 milligrams of blue dye per day,” Nedergaard said. “It’s in anything blue, in M&Ms, in Gatorade, in Jell-O. We eat 100 million pounds a year in the U.S., so we already know that there’s no toxicity” [].

However, much work still must be done before BBG can be tested in humans. Spinal injury expert Mark Bacon notes that “the levels ingested in food stuffs don’t make us go blue, as is the case in the group’s experimental studies on rats, suggesting the therapeutic dose needed to protect the spinal cord from ATP toxicity is far, far higher than that experienced in daily life. What is safe at one dose may not be safe at higher doses” [BBC News], he says. Nedergaard also wants to determine how soon after injury BBG must be injected in order to have a beneficial effect; the mice were injected 15 minutes after injury, but most people don’t get to the hospital within 15 minutes of a serious accident.

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Image: University of Rochester

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: neurons, paralysis
  • Biology Science Fair Projects

    When you are developing a science fair project you need to look at how common things can be used to do uncommon tasks. Read this news blog on how chemical compounds that are similar to those found in blue food dye are improving the condition of spinal cord injured mice.

  • Jumblepudding

    flashbacks to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory.
    Perhaps other food dyes have unknown effects on our health as well, making a bag of M&Ms or skittles a pharmalogical cornucopia. (try saying that five times fast)

  • Angela

    Hmm, so maybe I should keep a bag of M&M’s on hand, just in case? 😉

  • Gadfly

    Angela, just make sure they’re all blue ones. Wouldn’t want to dilute the therapeutic effect.

  • Art

    Where do they find rats with spinal cord injuries?

  • Eliza Strickland

    Jumblepudding: I thought of Violet, too!

    Angela: The researcher actually suggested, semi-seriously, that patients en route to the hospital could be given blue Gatorade to drink…

    Art: The researchers inflicted the spinal cord injuries on the mice, sorry to say, by dropping a 10-gram weight on their backs while the mice were under anesthesia.

  • Art

    I think the picture made me sympathetic. It looks like it’s posing.
    I think more testing should be done on degenerates instead of little white mice. Just drug ’em then anesthetize. They’ll never know what hit ’em and they won’t understand.

  • ctw

    Can a few food additives (not all food additives) including some food dyes and artificial sweeteners act like undisclosed drugs for a few human beings (not all human beings)? Yes. Source:

  • MarkD

    Ok, if it actually can’t do damage when injected with proper sterile technique, finish up human trials quickly and get these on all ambulances and police med kits!

    Why would you need to get to a hospital if it really is that safe? Give it in the field.

    I’ll happily deal with smurf jokes for a few months instead of being paralyzed. Heck just stab me with it just in case.

  • hannah

    if you gave a rat this by mouth would it work the same? (still turn it blue?) email me with the answer at


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