Omega-3 intake linked to higher cognition in infants, toddlers and young children

October 15, 2013, NC Research Campus

Carol L. Cheatham, PhD, developmental cognitive neuroscientist with the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) at the NC Research Campus, has research findings that prove just how critical fatty acids are to the cognitive development and cognitive functioning of infants, toddlers and young children.

A study on the effect of the ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and the cognitive abilities of seven to nine years of age were recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In the study, dietary data confirmed the ratio of each child's omega-6 to omega-3 intake. After taking a set of neuropsychological tests, Cheatham said, "children who were eating too many omega-6 in comparison to omega-3 had slower speed of processing on working memory and planning problems."

The comparison is important because omega-6, which is found in meats and refined vegetable oil is more abundant in the Western diet. Research has connected the over-consumption of omega-6 fatty acids to chronic inflammation, an underlying factor in heart disease, cancer and other common diseases. Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to the regulation of blood clotting and are considered heart healthy because they lower fats or triglycerides in the blood including the "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Unfortunately, the typical American diet includes relatively few foods that are rich in omega-3 compared to those high in omega-6.

"Think of omega-6 as as French fries and omega-3 as vegetables," Cheatham said. "Intake needs to be in balance because the metabolic pathways share the same enzymes. If the pathways get out of balance because you are eating more omega-6 than omega-3, the enzymes get used up, and you won't be able to make your own DHA ()because you will be out of the things you need to make it."

Genotype, DHA and Cognition

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid proven to support brain, heart and eye health in and infants. It can be made by the human body, but dietary intake of DHA-rich foods like eggs, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and salmon, tuna, halibut, cod, and other coldwater, fatty fish is recommended to maintain adequate levels. Because DHA is needed for the proper development and functioning of memory and the hippocampus, it is commonly added to baby formulas.

Cheatham found that seven percent of the United States population cannot make sufficient levels of the fatty acid. She wondered what effect this could have on the of children. Working with NRI colleague Mihai Niculescu, PhD, Cheatham started investigating a specific single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) related to . A SNP is a genetic variation or "misspelling" in a person's genetic code.

Based on this SNP, Cheatham designed an experiment with 16-month-old toddlers feeding them flaxseed oil for four months. The age is significant because toddlers are not on formula at that point. Cheatham theorized that the flaxseed would provide a consistent substrate from which the toddlers could make their own DHA.

Cheatham's findings were surprising. She found that if a mother had a GG genotype, her children had lower declarative memory abilities when the study started. A GG genotype is thought to mean that the mother cannot make DHA because of two recessive alleles at the specific SNP being studied. With regular flaxseed supplementation, these children finished the study with the highest scores on the declarative memory task with which they were assessed.

"There wasn't any difference across the four months in the children's cognition," Cheatham admitted, "unless we divided by not the child's genotype but by their mother's genotype. We are talking about 16- month-old children, and their mother's genotype is still more important to them metabolically than their own."

In another study, she looked at mothers with the GG genotype and the influence of DHA deficits in the placenta and breast milk. Similar to the toddlers, six-month-old babies from GG mothers had lower recognition memory skills at the time of testing.

"If mom is GG, her baby at six months of age could not tell the difference between old and new pictures in an electrophysiology paradigm, which all six month old babies should be able to do," Cheatham said. "These studies really speak to the need to identify the mothers who are GG and make sure they are eating enough and eggs."

And Cheatham emphasized, identifying these mothers is as easy as a genetic analysis of their saliva.

Explore further: Despite health benefits, most children and adults have a 'nutrition gap' in omega-3 fatty acids

Related Stories

Despite health benefits, most children and adults have a 'nutrition gap' in omega-3 fatty acids

July 16, 2013
Because of a diet low in fish and seafood, children and adults in North America and other parts of the world, have a "nutrition gap" of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid ...

Diets low in polyunsaturated fatty acids may be a problem for youngsters

September 13, 2013
In the first study to closely examine the polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) intake among U.S. children under the age of 5, Sarah Keim, PhD, principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at The Research Institute ...

Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids may cause memory problems

February 27, 2012
A diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients commonly found in fish, may cause your brain to age faster and lose some of its memory and thinking abilities, according to a study published in the February 28, 2012, print ...

Eating fish, nuts may not help thinking skills after all

September 25, 2013
Contrary to earlier studies, new research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may not benefit thinking skills. The study is published in the September 25, 2013, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American ...

Anthropologists finds high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in breast milk of Amerindian women

June 8, 2012
– Working with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, anthropologists at UC Santa Barbara have found high levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in the breast milk of economically ...

Eat fish, build up brainpower

January 10, 2012
Can pregnant women help boost their children's brainpower by eating fish? The findings of a study, presented in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, show how children born to women who consumed more fish during their ...

Recommended for you

Junk food diet raises depression risk, researchers find

December 18, 2018
A diet of fast food, cakes and processed meat increases your risk of depression, according to researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Children of problem drinkers more likely to marry someone with a drinking problem: study

December 18, 2018
Children of parents who have alcohol use disorder are more likely to get married under the age of 25, less likely to get married later in life, and more likely to marry a person who has alcohol use disorder themselves, according ...

A co-worker's rudeness can affect your sleep—and your partner's, study finds

December 14, 2018
Rudeness. Sarcastic comments. Demeaning language. Interrupting or talking over someone in a meeting. Workplace incivilities such as these are becoming increasingly common, and a new study from Portland State University and ...

Study shows magnesium optimizes vitamin D status

December 14, 2018
A randomized trial by Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center researchers indicates that magnesium optimizes vitamin D status, raising it in people with deficient levels and lowering it in people with high levels.

A holiday gift to primary care doctors: Proof of their time crunch

December 14, 2018
The average primary care doctor needs to work six more hours a day than they already do, in order to make sure their patients get all the preventive and early-detection care they want and deserve, a new study finds.

Teens get more sleep with later school start time, researchers find

December 12, 2018
When Seattle Public Schools announced that it would reorganize school start times across the district for the fall of 2016, the massive undertaking took more than a year to deploy. Elementary schools started earlier, while ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.