New randomized controlled trial says omega 3s good for the young adult brain

Many people don’t consume very much fish and seafood, or at least compared to how much humans might have gotten before we shifted to an agricultural society. This has led many doctors and scientists to wonder, might we be missing out on all the omega-3 fatty acids in fish?

One type of omega-3s is called docosahexaenoic acid, often just simply called DHA. DHA has been shown to accumulate in areas of the brain involved in memory. Animal studies have shown that not getting enough DHA has poor effects on development and behavior. In randomized controlled trials in humans, where half of participants get DHA and the other half get placebo, researchers have primarily been focused on studying and treating children with learning disorders or the elderly suffering from cognitive decline. However, to date research is lacking on the effects of DHA supplementation/consumption on young healthy adults.

New research published this month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition wanted to look at this very question: might DHA be useful to young healthy adult brains, too?

Methods

The study was a randomized controlled trial that lasted for 6 months. They recruited 228 adults, aged 18-45. Half the participants received 1.16 grams of DHA per day, while the other half received placebo.

Their primary measures were memory performance, attention, reaction times, and processing speed. Cognitive function was assessed at baseline and at the end of the 6 month period with “the Computerized Mental Performance Assessment System.”

Results

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The researchers found that DHA supplementation improved memory and reaction times in healthy young adults.

Here’s what they found:

  • Episodic memory significantly improved in women who took DHA compared to women who took placebo. DHA did not have the same effect on men.
  • Reaction time improved significantly after DHA treatment irrespective of sex.
  • DHA did not affect working memory domain, but the reaction time of working memory significantly improved in the DHA group compared with the placebo group.
  • DHA had no effect on attention or the reaction time of attention.

Conclusions

The authors concluded,

“DHA supplementation improved memory and reaction times of memory in healthy young adults… Young healthy adults may cognitively benefit from an increased consumption of DHA.”

What does this mean for you, the young healthy adult? This study provides good-quality evidence that increasing your consumption of DHAs can give your brain a little boost, particularly for improved reaction times and some aspects of memory. While there may be  many other benefits of getting more omega-3s in your diet, this study is one of the first and most thorough studies examining the beneficial effects of DHA on the young healthy adult brain.

How to get your DHA? DHA and omega-3s are found in good amounts in fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna and more. If it’s not possible to add more fish to your diet, they also make omega-3 supplements that contain good amounts of DHA, as an alternative or addition to eating more fish.

Link

Stonehouse W, Conlon CA, Podd J, Hill SR, Minihane AM, Haskell C and Kennedy D. DHA supplementation improved both memory and reaction time in healthy young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2013 97: 1134-1143;

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Brant Cebulla

Brant Cebulla
Brant has worked in and out of public health and information sciences the past 5 years, including a stint as the Development Director for the Vitamin D Council, a nonprofit that educates on vitamin D, sun exposure and disease. He has keen interests in nutrition, exercise and evidence-based medicine.

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