Thursday, September 4, 2008

Omega-3 Fats and Brain Development

Another interesting study that Dr. Hibbeln sent me is about the link between maternal seafood consumption and neurodevelopmental outcomes in children. The study is about as powerful as epidemiology gets, with an enrollment of 11,875 mothers.

The bottom line is short and sweet: compared to the children of mothers who ate 340 grams or more of fish per week, children whose mothers ate very little fish had an increased risk of low verbal intelligence, poor social behavior, poor motor skills, poor communication skills, and poor social development. These associations remained after adjusting for 28 potential confounders, including social status, level of education, stressful life events, smoking, alcohol, and several others.

In support of this association, in another study the four-year-old children of mothers who were given DHA and arachidonic acid supplements had higher IQs than those given "placebo" (corn oil). There have been a number of trials of varying quality that have shown varying results with n-3 supplementation, so I'll leave you to decide what you think of this. A 2007 review I found on n-3 supplementation and brain development states that "the evidence for potential benefits of LCPUFA [long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid] supplementation is promising but yet inconclusive".

I do think it's interesting to note that the brain has the highest concentration of long-chain n-3 fats of any organ, and eating n-3 fats in the form of fish, fish oil or cod liver oil increases the amount in tissues. Eating too much n-6 depletes the brain of DHA and adversely affects neuron development in piglets. n-3 deficiency affects the release of serotonin (a neurotransmitter) in rat brains.

Put it all together, including the data from the last two posts, and I think there's some evidence that a good balance of n-3 to n-6 fatty acids is important for optimal brain function and perhaps development.