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Brainy Omega-3 Bulletin from Science Summit
2/16/2011
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Omega-3 expert Joyce Nettleton, D.Sc., presents the 3rd in a series of reports on news from the recent fat-science summit meeting 
by Craig Weatherby 


Last month, we attended two omega-3 science conferences in Europe (See “Omega-3 Gurus Savor Vital Choice Salmon”).
 
The second of the two was the 2010 gathering of the International Society for Study of Fats & Lipids (ISSFAL), held in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
 
We asked expert attendee Joyce Nettleton, D.Sc., to summarize ISSFAL presentations that addressed various topics, including brain, heart, and metabolic health.
 
Dr. Nettleton is a widely published expert on omega-3 science and seafood health-nutrition topics. She issues regular fatty acid science updates in her great Fats of Life (consumer-oriented) and PUFA (scientist-oriented) e-newsletters.
 
Her first report concerned omega-3s’ apparent or potential impacts on metabolism, with implications for the risk of metabolic syndrome (MetS) and the diabetes it often forecasts (See “Omega-3 Summit Report, Part 1”).
 
Dr. Nettleton’s second report summarized findings about the role of omega-6 fats in weight control (See “Weight Gain and Omega-6 Fats”).
 
Tonight, we present the third of her reports, focused on the role of dietary omega-3 fats in brain health. This report covers the role of omega-3s in brain function and performance.
 
We'll publish the second part of her brain research bulletin, focused on mental health, in our next issue.
 
What’s going on in your head? Fish fat is part of the answer...
First of two reports on brain research presented at the ISSFAL 2010 conference
By Joyce A. Nettleton, D.Sc.
 
From their influences over the “talk” between neurons (brain cells) to the mental and behavioral conditions they affect, two key kinds of essential polyunsaturated fatsomega-3 and omega-6are key players in brain function.
 
We’re talking about omega-6 ARA and omega-3 DHA… both of which are essential for brain structure and function.
 
But while the body can retain or create enough ARA more easily, omega-3 DHA levels drop fast in the brains of people who do not often consume fish or fish oil (Brenna JT et al., 2007; Chang CY et al. 2009).
 
A few plant foods such as flax, leafy greens, beans, and walnuts provide small amounts of an omega-3 fat called ALA, but the body can’t use this “short-chain” omega-3... except as fuel.
 
The body can only convert about two to five percent of dietary ALA into the two long-chain omega-3s it actually needs to survive: the EPA and DHA found in fish fat.
 
Before we review some of the key findings presented or debated at ISSFAL, we should note that DHA is the dominant fatty acid in the brain by far, and is essential to the structure of brain cells (neurons) and their key functions.
 
For example, DHA promotes the growth of neuritesbranches that extend from neurons to allow communication with other neuronsand the formation of synapses, the points of communication between neurons (Kim HY et al., 2010; Cao D et al. 2009).
 
Omega-3 DHA also gives rise to cell-stabilizing compounds such as neuroprotectin D1, which reduces the inflammation seen in stroke and neurodegenerative diseases, inhibits cell death, prolongs the survival of brain cells and appears to help deter Alzheimer’s and retinal degeneration (Zhang C et al., 2010).
 
Fish fat aids brain’s sugary food supply
The brain’s primary fuel is glucose (blood sugar), whose ability to reach the brain is impaired in animals deficient in omega-3s.
 
Glucose transport can be restored by supplementing animals’ diets with omega-3 EPA or DHA, but not omega-6 ARA (Pifferi F et al., 2007).
 
Affirming the findings of prior research reported here in Vital Choices, presentation at ISSFAL reported that omega-3 deficient animals had a lower rate of glucose uptake and a slower rate of glucose utilization compared with omega-3-fed animals (Harbeby E et al., 2010).
 
Accordingly, the authors suggested that impaired glucose metabolism might contribute to cognitive decline in aging.
 
Long-chain “marine” omega-3s affect mood and cognition
Although omega-3 fatty acids affect brain structure and function, it is a big leap to link omega-3 fatty acid status and mental or cognitive performance.
 
That said, animal studies have shown that low levels of DHA are associated with neuro-developmental problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Levant B et al., 2010a).
 
Working with rats fed either adequate or deficient levels of omega-3s for two generations, investigators at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas, USA, reported that the omega-3 deficient diet resulted in a 44 percent reduction in brain DHA in the first set of offspring and a 62 percent reduction in the second generation animals (Levant B et al., 2010b).
 
Compared with the animals fed sufficient omega-3s, the second generation animals had higher levels of activity that persisted into the adolescent period. There was no difference between the groups when each was presented with a novel situation.
 
The investigators attributed these findings to the reduced accumulation of DHA in brain during development rather than the amount of omega-3 in the diet.
 
Recent studies in children support some of these observations, but not all behavioral measures have been related to the fatty acids in the participants’ tissues (Gow R et al., 2010; Kirby A et al., 2010).
 
Seafood-borne omega-3s and brain performance
Hopes have been raised that boosting our consumption of fish or the omega-3s they contain may prevent the decline in cognitive function that often accompanies aging.
 
Fish fats may not be magic bullets, but there are encouraging indications that demand follow up.
 
Results to date suggest that selected individuals with mild Alzheimer’s disease may benefit from omega-3s, but firm conclusions remain elusive (Cederholm T and Palmblad J, 2010).
 
One ISSFAL report observed no link between fatty fish or EPA plus DHA with cognitive performance or wellbeing after 13 to 26 weeks of consuming EPA plus DHA (van de Rest O et al., 2010).
 
However, EPA plus DHA intake was linked to having an optimistic disposition.
 
Australian study links omega-3s to better brain performance
Natalie Sinn and her colleagues at the University of South Australia found links between the blood levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in older people with mildly impaired cognition (Sinn N et al. 2010).
 
People 65 years of age or older with mildly impaired cognition had less omega-3 EPA but more omega-6 DPA... a fatty acid usually seen only in people seriously lacking in omega-3s.
 
Having higher blood levels of omega-6 DPA levels was associated with poorer performance on two verbal tests and auditory learning, while higher blood levels omega-6 ARA were linked to poorer scores on a test of backwards digits.
 
These observations support the idea that long-chain fatty acids of the omega-3 family may deter age-related loss of cognitive abilities.
 
Swedish trial finds omega-3s boost vision and decision powers
As reported at ISSFAL, investigators in Sweden conducted a small trial of 28 healthy individuals aged 70 to 82 years to see whether the consumption of long-chain omega-3s affected their cognitive ability (Lindmark L et al., 2010).
 
The participants consumed 3.2 grams of long-chain omega-3s for four months, after which they showed significant improvement in two tests of cognitive function, one for visual ability and one for executive function. The scores correlated with the participants’ increased in blood omega-3s, but because the supplement contained several other substances besides the omega-3 fatty acids, the findings cannot be attributed only to the omega-3s.
 
Fishy spread boosts kids' brains
Cognitive improvement in 7- to 9-year-old South African children who consumed a spread containing fish flour was reported last year (see “Fishy Bread-Spread Boosts Kids’ Brains”; Dalton A et al., 2009).
 
Further analysis of data from the fish-spread study, reported at ISSFAL, showed that cognitive development improved significantly more in children with lower baseline cognitive and spelling scores compared with children whose scores were higher at baseline (Smuts CM et al., 2010).
 

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