The study, published inthe Journal of Neuroscience, provides further evidence for the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in healthy brain development by demonstrating that monkeys what consume a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids have brains with highly connected and well organized neural networks — similar to neural networks in healthy humans — while monkeys that ate a diet deficient in the fatty acids had much more limited brain networking.
Led by Dr Damien Fair from Oregon Health & Science University, the team report that monkeys fed a diet rich in the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) had strong connectivity of early visual pathways in their brains - and also revealed that monkeys with the high-DHA diet showed greater connections within various brain networks similar to the human brain — including networks for higher-level processing and cognition.
"The data shows the benefits in how the monkeys' brains organize over their lifetime if in the setting of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids," said Fair. "The data also shows in detail how similar the networks in a monkey brain are to networks in a human brain, but only in the context of a diet rich in omega-3-fatty acids."
The team measured a kind of, or DHA, which is a primary component of the human brain and important in development of the brain and vision. DHA is especially found in fatty fish and oils from those fish — including salmon, mackerel and tuna. Research by a co-author on the paper, Martha Neuringer, Ph.D, an associate scientist in the Division of Neuroscience at OHSU's Oregon National Primate Research Center, previously showed the importance of DHA for infants' visual development — a finding that led to the addition of DHA to infant formulas.
The team studied a group of older rhesus macaque monkeys — 17 to 19 years of age — from ONPRC that had been fed either a diet rich in DHA or a diet low in the omega-3 fatty acid for their entire lives.
They then used resting-state functional connectivity MRI to define the large-scale organization of the rhesus macaque brain and changes associated with differences in lifetime omega-3 fatty acid intake.
"Monkeys fed docosahexaenoic acid, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid abundant in neural membranes, had cortical modular organization resembling the healthy human brain," revealed the team.
"For example, we could see activity and connections within areas of the macaque brain that are important in the human brain for attention," Fair added.
In contrast, monkeys with low levels of dietary omega-3 fatty acids had decreased functional connectivity within the early visual pathway and throughout higher-order associational cortex and showed impairment of distributed cortical networks, he said.
"Our findings illustrate the similarity in modular cortical organization between the healthy human and macaque brain and support the notion that omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in developing and/or maintaining distributed, large-scale brain systems, including those essential for normal cognitive function," the team concluded.
Now that those measurements and monitoring are possible, Fair said, the next step will be to analyze whether the monkeys with deficits in certain networks have behavioural patterns that are similar to behavioural patterns in humans with certain neurological or psychiatric conditions — including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and autism.
He added that another longer-term goal would be to study brain development in the monkeys fed various diets from birth into maturity: "It would be important to see how a diet high in omega-3s might affect brain development early on in their lives, and across their lifespan."
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Study source: The Journal of Neuroscience
Volume 34, Number 6, Pages 2065-2074, doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3038-13.2014
"Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acids Modulate Large-Scale Systems Organization in the Rhesus Macaque Brain"
Authors: David S. Grayson, Christopher D. Kroenke, Martha Neuringer, Damien A. Fair