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Omega-3s Improve Child Cognition, Reduce Autism Symptoms

Omega-3s Improve Child Cognition, Reduce Autism Symptoms


Mom's DHA boosts infant problem-solving. In the third trimester of pregnancy, infant brains experience a large growth spurt. Mothers' DHA levels at that time influence infant DHA levels at three months, and cognitive development at 12 months.

DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid, commonly found in fish (such as salmon or tuna). This fatty acid is in the same family as the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, which is the essential fatty acid precursor of DHA and is commonly found in plant foods such as flax, soy, and walnuts. It is also in the same family as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the other fatty acid commonly found in fish and marine products. In the human body, DHA is present in lower concentrations in the blood, but in very high concentrations in the brain, retina, and spermatozoa.

In this study, doctors measured DHA levels in 32 pregnant women at week 28 and again at three months postpartum, and in their offspring at three, six, and 12 months.

At three months, children of mothers with higher DHA levels also had higher DHA levels themselves. And, at 12 months, children whose mothers had adequate DHA levels during the third trimester were better able to solve problems compared to children whose mothers had lower DHA levels while pregnant.

Discussing the results, doctors said it is the fatty acid content in membranes of circulating red blood cells during pregnancy that have the strongest link to later problem-solving skills, and that higher problem-solving scores in infancy translate directly to higher childhood IQ scores later. (Reference: Nutrients; 2018, Vol. 10, No. 5, 529)

This study highlights the importance of optimal omega-3 oil supplementation during pregnancy and before! Omega-3 (fish oil) supplements are available with higher levels of DHA than EPA. 

Omega-3s with GLA reduce autism symptoms. Because children don't receive a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) until at least age four, most autism studies have focused on these older kids. Doctors felt they might have the best hope of improving ASD by starting younger, and focused on prematurely born children, who are more likely to develop ASD.

In this study, doctors gave 28 kids born at least 11 weeks premature, omega-3, -6, and -9, including 338 mg EPA, 225 mg DHA, and 83 mg GLA per day, or a canola oil placebo containing alpha-linolenic, linoleic, oleic, palmitic, and stearic acids.

After three months, the omega-3 group saw significantly improved ASD symptom scores. Discussing the findings, doctors said in ASD, some metabolic pathways for processing fatty acids may not be as efficient as in healthy people, and that GLA may combine with fatty acids so the brain can use omega-3s more efficiently. (Reference: The Journal of Nutrition; 2018, Vol. 148, No. 2, 227-35)

Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 fatty acid, derived from the seeds of plants such as evening primrose and borage. Oils that contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) include borage seed oil (23%), black currant seed oil (15 19%), and evening primrose oil (9%).38 Even though GLA is an omega-6 oil, it is used therapeutically for many of the same conditions as EPA and DHA, the main omega-3 oils. This may be due to the fact that research suggests that dihomogammalinolenic acid, a metabolite of GLA is a  precursor of prostaglandin E1.

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