Can Blue M&M’s Reduce Spinal Cord Injury?

The meaning behind M&M colors has long been the subject of childhood speculation, and as it turns out, one M&M really could have special powers. Or, at least, the dye used to color its candy shell might.

Scientists at the University of Rochester (New York) recently announced that the blue dye used in M&M’s and Gatorade might just have another use – reducing the severity of spinal cord injuries. Scientists made the discovery after injecting the compound Brilliant Blue G (BBG) into mice suffering from spinal cord injuries. After the injection, the formerly immobile mice were able to walk again, though with a limp.

Of course, as with any miracle cure, there were side effects to contend with. The side effect of the injection? Test mice turned what can only be called a brilliant shade of blue.

The finding was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and research started after a previous spinal cord injury study from the University of Rochester found that Adenosine triphosphate (ATP, or, as it is also known, “the currency of life”) surged to the site of spinal cord injuries soon after they occurred and actually killed healthy cells unaffected by the initial injury. The previous study, conducted five years ago, found that injecting oxidized ATP into a recent spinal cord injury actually reduced the severity of the injury.

But that treatment method had flaws, said lead researcher Maiken Nedergaard, professor of Neurosurgery and director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“While we achieved great results when oxidized ATP was injected directly into the spinal cord, this method would not be practical for use with spinal cord-injured patients. First, no one wants to put a needle into a spinal cord that has just been severely injured, so we knew we needed to find another way to quickly deliver an agent that would stop ATP from killing healthy motor neurons. Second, the compound we initially used, oxidized ATP, cannot be injected into the bloodstream because of its dangerous side effects,” Nedergaard said.

The discovery that blue food coloring could transform an injury that could cause paralysis into one that a patient could walk off came due to Nedergaard’s realization that a certain blue food dye could counteract the molecules that allow ATP to latch onto and kill motor neurons in the spinal cord.

While BBG is not a cure for spinal cord injuries, according to Nedergaard, it could help reduce their severity. Currently, 15% of spinal cord injuries are treated with steroids while the other 85% are untreated. Said Nedergaard, doctors questions whether steroids even work to reduce spinal cord injury.

According to scientists, BBG must be administered immediately after the injury and before any more neurons can be killed by surging ATP. The treatment may soon be tested in clinical trials on human patients.

"Even a moderate improvement in functional performance of the patient is a big, big event for these patients," she said. "They can control their bladder. If they can just take small steps instead of sitting in a wheelchair all the time, it's a tremendous benefit for these patients," Nedergaard told CNN.

Visit CNN.com for more one this story, including a picture of one of the blue mice.