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Omega-3s Boost Boys’ Brains in MRI Scans
2/25/2010
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For the first time, brain scans link omega-3 supplements to higher activity in brain areas associated with memory, vision, and motor control
by Craig Weatherby


Two years ago, we published a report titled “American Parents Admit Ignorance of Omega-3 Benefits”.

And last year, we reported on a study that confirmed the adverse consequences of this parental unawareness (see “Kids in US and Canada Deemed Omega-3 Deficient”).

However, the extent to which children over two can gain an edge by consuming more omega-3s than the average American child needs to be quantified and confirmed in clinical trials.

We’ve related the results of several intriguing studies over the past few years, including these:
Now, a first-ever clinical trial that used “functional” MRI scans found that boys who took omega-3 DHA supplements had more activity in parts of the brain associated with memory, vision, and motor control.

DHA is one of the two omega-3s considered essential to human health, the other being EPA.

Omega-3s’ developmental benefits gain European support
Although the evidence is mixed, most the best-designed studies indicate that abundant omega-3 intake benefits child development, as the results we reported on in “Child Benefits of Fish Affirmed in Large Studysuggest.

That article contains useful links, including a link to our coverage of the landmark ALSPAC clinical trial, which affirmed the widely presumed rewards of above-average fish intake in young children… and found no fish-related risks (Hibbeln JR et al. 2007).

The U.S. FDA approved addition of omega-3 DHA to infant formula several years ago, and more recently, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that DHA benefits brain and eye development, before and after birth.

The EFSA now recommends that infants aged seven to 24 months consume at least 100mg of DHA per day and suggests that pregnant and lactating women get at least 200mg per day.

However, this is only about half of what some leading researchers recommend for pregnant and lactating women.

Their view is based on the substantial evidence of benefit when pregnant/ nursing mothers and children consume fish and omega-3s in abundance… and the lack of evidence of harm in the absence of high mercury levels (Oken E et al. 2008).
Of the two fish-borne omega-3s, DHA is the one considered essential for child brain and vision development, and to eye and brain function throughout life.

In fact, 60 percent of the fat in the human brain is DHA, which is found in and critical to the function of brain cell (neuron) membranes.

Let’s take a closer look at the study and what it might mean.

Cincinnati MRI study links omega-3 DHA to brain activation in boys
While a growing body of evidence links DHA to optimal brain function, it hasn’t been clear whether or how dietary DHA affects activity in the cortex or “grey matter” of the human brain.

(The cerebral cortex plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness.)

To bridge this knowledge gap, scientists from the University of Cincinnati recruited 33 health boys aged between eight and 10 for a clinical trial in which they used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to view changes in brain activity.

Functional MRI (fMRI) scans show changes in blood flow in the brain, which occur when brain cells (neurons) become more or less active. Thanks to its safety and its unique capacity to reveal these dynamic changes, fMRI imaging now dominates the science of brain mapping.

The boys were randomly assigned to receive either of two doses of DHA (400 or 1200 mg per day), or placebo capsules, for eight weeks.

The Cincinnati group then scanned the boys’ brains as they played video games… a task that requires decisions, memory, and sustained attention.

The main finding was that boys in the DHA groups showed significant activity increases in the part of the brain associated with working memory (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).

Working memory is required for the integration, processing, disposal, and retrieval of information.

The fMRI scans also revealed increased activity in the brain’s vision processing and motor control centers (occipital and cerebellar cortex)

As expected, the boys who got DHA showed increased levels in the membranes of red blood cells (erythrocytes).

DHA levels increased by 47 and 70 percent in the low and high dose DHA groups respectively, while the placebo groups experienced an 11 percent drop in DHA levels.

The Cincinnati team noted that fMRI imaging could help reveal the mechanisms underlying psychiatric disorders associated with DHA deficiencies, including ADHD and major depression.

We can’t draw any firm conclusions about the meaning of these fMRI findings with regard to learning and other mental tasks... but they seem to support the positive outcomes of some studies on the developmental benefits of dietary omega-3s.

The study was co-funded by DHA supplement maker Martek, the National Institutes of Health, and the Inflammation Research Foundation.


Sources
  • Agostoni C, Zuccotti GV, Radaelli G, Besana R, Podestà A, Sterpa A, Rottoli A, Riva E, Giovannini M. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation and time at achievement of gross motor milestones in healthy infants: a randomized, prospective, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):64-70. Epub 2008 Dec 3.
  • Gale CR, Robinson SM, Godfrey KM, Law CM, Schlotz W, O'Callaghan FJ. Oily fish intake during pregnancy--association with lower hyperactivity but not with higher full-scale IQ in offspring. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2008 Oct;49(10):1061-8. Epub 2008 Apr 15.
  • Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Steer C, Emmett P, Rogers I, Williams C, Golding J. Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. Lancet. 2007 Feb 17;369(9561):578-85.
  • McNamara RK, Able J, Jandacek R, Rider T, Tso P, Eliassen JC, Alfieri D, Weber W, Jarvis K, Delbello MP, Strakowski SM, Adler CM. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Feb 3. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Mendez MA, Torrent M, Julvez J, Ribas-Fitó N, Kogevinas M, Sunyer J. Maternal fish and other seafood intakes during pregnancy and child neurodevelopment at age 4 years. Public Health Nutr. 2009 Oct;12(10):1702-10. Epub 2008 Nov 25.
  • Oken E, Radesky JS, Wright RO, Bellinger DC, Amarasiriwardena CJ, Kleinman KP, Hu H, Gillman MW. Maternal fish intake during pregnancy, blood mercury levels, and child cognition at age 3 years in a US cohort. Am J Epidemiol. 2008 May 15;167(10):1171-81. Epub 2008 Mar 18.

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