Online Exclusives

Omega 3 & Brain Health

By Joanna Cosgrove, Online Editor | March 8, 2012

Can omega 3s influence intelligence, behavior and psychiatric disorders? Researchers hope to find out in two separate studies.

Omega 3 fatty acids have long been acknowledged for their cardiovascular benefits. However, new research has begun to explore the link between brain function and omega 3s. Two recent studies will take that link to the next level by exploring how omega 3s influence intelligence and behavior, and whether these nutrients can be a factor in the treatment of certain psychiatric disorders. 

Researchers from the University of Kansas are set to embark on the second stage of a 10-year, double-blind, randomized, controlled trial to determine whether prenatal nutritional supplementation with the omega 3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) might benefit children’s intelligence and school readiness.
“The possibility that DHA may have long-term benefits for cognitive-intellectual development, particularly on measures that predict school achievement, would have enormous implications for public policy on prenatal nutrition,” said Susan Carlson, PhD, A. J. Rice professor of dietetics and nutrition at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
Dr. Carlson, along with her colleague John Colombo, Ph.D., University of Kansas professor of psychology and director of the University of Kansas Life Span Institute, were moved by the fact that DHA occurs naturally in cell membranes with the highest levels in brain cells, but DHA levels can be increased by diet or supplements, particularly from fish oil. An infant obtains DHA from his or her mother in utero and postnatally from human milk, but the amount received depends upon the mother’s DHA statu—and, according to Dr. Carlson, U.S. women consume less DHA than women elsewhere in the developed world.
The University of Kansas study will follow the children of 350 mothers who were enrolled in the study during pregnancy. Pregnant women were randomly assigned to take either 600 milligrams of DHA or 600 milligrams of a placebo during the last half of pregnancy.
During the first five years of the study, all children received multiple developmental assessments through 18 months of age. In the next five years of the study, all children will receive twice-yearly assessments through six years of age. The researchers will measure developmental milestones that occur in later childhood and are linked to lifelong health and welfare.
The trial, which is being funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is the first to measure the effects of prenatal nutritional supplementation with DHA employing frequent assessment of intellectual and psychological development of children in this age group.
“Previous research has established the effects of postnatal feeding of DHA on infant cognitive and intellectual development, but DHA is accumulated most rapidly in the brain during pregnancy. That’s why we are so interested in the effects of DHA taken prenatally,” said Dr. Colombo.“Now we will be able to really see how this nutrient affects development over the long term.”
Another unique feature of the trial involves the evaluation of the effect of genetic variation in genes that are linked to fatty acid metabolism and DHA status. “Genetic differences among women and infants in the study may account for individual variations in the response to supplementation,” said Dr. Carlson.
Adolescent Psychiatric Disorders
Manhasset, NY-based Recognition and Prevention (RAP) Program, a research and treatment program affiliated with Zucker Hillside Hospital, has worked with teenagers at risk for serious mental illness for the past decade. The program’s specialty is in the field of early intervention and prevention of serious mental illness. To that end, researchers at the RAP Program have begun a study focused on the effectiveness of omega 3 fatty acids for treating psychiatric symptoms.
The randomized, double-blind trial, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), is designed to test whether omega 3 fatty acids improve clinical symptoms, and help adolescents and young adults (ages 12 to 25) who are at elevated risk for severe psychiatric disorders function better in school, work and other social environments.
“Of the 300 adolescents who have participated in the RAP Program, most have shown substantial improvement,” noted Barbara Cornblatt, PhD, director of the RAP Program and investigator at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. “If this study continues to show success, omega 3s could offer a natural alternative to the range of medications and therapies now offered to RAP participants. Ultimately, the goal of the RAP Program is to intervene and prevent illness before symptoms get worse.”
Participants in the RAP Program study will be randomly assigned receive either omega 3 supplementation or a placebo. The groups will then be compared on key measures of symptoms and functioning after six months. Participants in both groups will be monitored closely on a monthly basis and compensation will be provided. All supplements are offered free of charge.
The RAP Program has joined  other early intervention research groups to form an eight-site North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study (NAPLS), an international study consortium conducting cutting edge research with at-risk adolescents and young adults. The omega 3 fatty acid trial will be conducted at all eight RAP sites.

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