Children Get Smarter From Taking Fish Oil

October 24, 2005

The omega-3 fatty acid DHA in fish oil is an important building block for the brain. DHA deficiency in the first years of life may impact the normal development of the child’s brain.

Are children getting smarter from eating fish? Recent studies suggest that fatty acids in fish oil can help certain children with ADHD or dyslexia. But what about infants?

From the last third of fetal life to the end of the second year of life, children’s brains grow so strongly that one speaks of a brain growth spurt. During this period, a lack of a number of vital nutrients, such as fish oil, will affect brain function. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently published a comprehensive review of what is known about fish and young children’s brains.

As a starting point, it is known that the polyunsaturated n-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is highly concentrated in the cell walls of nerve cells. DHA is one of the two important n-3 fatty acids in fish oil. The other is EPA (eicosa-pentaenoic acid). EPA can be converted to DHA, and to a certain extent they can both be formed from the n-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid in e.g. linseed oil.

But does it form enough in a child who is not breastfed or gets oily fish? The question is relevant. It is known that breast-fed babies have up to 40% more DHA in the brain’s gray matter than bottle-fed babies. In addition, it is known that young animals and probably also infants, even if they are neither near-sighted nor far-sighted, will see a little less sharply if they lack n-3 fatty acids. The significance of this is debated.

The importance of DHA has been investigated e.g. by comparing bottle-fed babies with breast-fed babies who got DHA from breast milk. Bottle babies have also been compared with other bottle babies who have received n-3-enriched formula. The children have been tested for intellectual and motor development, attention, etc.

Greater attention
In these kinds of experiments, it has been shown that breast-fed babies fare slightly better on average than bottle-fed babies. But is the difference due to DHA? Nursing mothers may function slightly better than non-nursing mothers, and may have better social relationships, etc. When you correct for this, the differences diminish. Furthermore, there are many other differences between milk substitute and mother’s milk other than the DHA content.

It becomes somewhat clearer when you compare bottle babies, where only half receive extra n-3 supplements. Here the results have been mixed, but on one point a difference has been seen quite consistently: Infants who receive n-3 supplements have a greater capacity for visual attention, i.e. to follow the things they see. This important result has also been obtained in experiments with monkeys.

In animal experiments with rodents, the clearest differences have been found. This is due, among other things, to the fact that these experiments can be set up, so that the difference in brain DHA becomes particularly large. Animals that are starved of n-3 fat become less agile, find it harder to find their way around a maze, etc. Even if there are only minor differences in brain DHA, the animals that do not get fish oils are weakened. Roughly speaking, this is what is known.

So what can be concluded? The authors do not claim that children should demonstrably have n-3 supplementation during the brain spurt. But they claim, after sifting through 258 scientific papers, that the need cannot be ruled out.

– Small differences in brain DHA, which most likely occur between bottle-fed babies with and without n-3 supplementation, may have effects that are currently difficult to detect but could be important, it says. Or to put it more simply: Remember to give babies and toddlers fatty fish or fish oil! They seem to be getting wiser from it.

By: Vitality Council

Mc Cann J C, Ames, Bruce N. Is docosahexaenoic acid, an n-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, required for development of normal brain function? An overview of evidence from cognitive and behavioural tests in humans and animals. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;82:281-95