Omega-3 DHA’s brain health benefits may emerge in later childhood

By Stephen DANIELLS

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Omega-3 fatty acid

Omega-3 DHA’s brain health benefits may emerge in later childhood
The potential brain health benefits of increased intake of DHA at birth may take several years to emerge, according to data from a small cohort of children.

Infants fed formula with higher levels of DHA did not always show cognitive effects at 18 months of age, but significant effects for vocabulary, rule-learning, and intelligence when measured at three years and above, report researchers from the University of Kansas.

“The data from this trial suggest benefits on several measures of cognitive development into early childhood after LCPUFA [long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid] provision for the first 12 months of life,” ​they wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​.

“Specifically, LCPUFA supplementation in infancy was associated with improved performance on several assessments of executive function and on verbal measures derived from standardized tests at 5 and 6 years.

“We believe that these outcomes are worth evaluating in future trials of LCPUFA supplementation.

“We also believe that studies to improve nutrition with the hypothesis of enhancing cognitive function should be powered to include similar assessments into childhood, and cognition in general, because our data suggest that improving LCPUFA status during an early and finite period may have lasting effects on cognitive function through childhood.”

Supporting DHA’s cognitive effects

Commenting independently on the results, Harry Rice, PhD, VP of regulatory & scientific affairs for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) told us:  “Despite the small number of subjects in the study, in a cohort of children followed since birth, these investigators extended their cognitive assessment of children from 18 months to 6 years.

“The results are further testimony to the importance of DHA for cognitive development.”   

Study details

Led by John Colombo, the researchers evaluated cognition in 81 children fed infant formula with different levels of DHA (0.32%, 0.64%, and 0.96% of total fatty acids) and 0.64% ARA for the first their 12 months and followed until age six.

Results showed that, compared with children who were not fed LCPUFA as infants, there were no significant differences in tests of language and performance at 18 months of age, but significant positive effects were observed for rule-learning and inhibition tasks, vocabulary, and IQ from three to six years of age.

The effects were mostly observed in the groups receiving the lower doses (DHA at 0.32% and 0.64%), except for cognitive performance on one of the standardized tests, for which the higher dose group (0.64% and 0.96% DHA) showed better performance.

No differences between the groups were observed in terms of spatial memory or advanced problem solving.

“Whereas the sample size of this trial may preclude this study from being regarded as a definitive demonstration of the specificity of the effects of LCPUFAs, these findings may contribute to the development of more sophisticated hypotheses about the effects of LCPUFA on the development of cognition,” ​they wrote.

Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.040766
“Long-term effects of LCPUFA supplementation on childhood cognitive outcomes”
Authors: J. Colombo, S.E. Carlson, C.L. Cheatham, D.J. Shaddy, E.H. Kerling, J.M. Thodosoff, K.M. Gustafson, C. Brez

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