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Omega-3 supplementation improves working memory in young adults

Trial uncovers protective effect for multinutrient supplement against cancer

Friday, November 2, 2012. The journal PLOS One published an article on October 3, 2012 that reveals a benefit for supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids on working memory in young men and women.

University of Pittsburgh researchers led by Rajesh Narendran of the Department of Radiology tested the effects of a supplement providing 930 milligrams eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and 750 milligrams docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in 11 men and women between the ages of 18 and 25. Evaluation of working memory (via an "n-back test"), positron emission tomography (PET) imaging of the brain and tests for red blood cell fatty acid levels were conducted before and after the six month treatment period.

Participants experienced an increase in plasma omega-3 fatty acid levels and improvement in working memory at the end of six months. "What was particularly interesting about the presupplementation n-back test was that it correlated positively with plasma omega-3,"observed Bita Moghaddam, whose lab conducted the research. "This means that the omega-3s they were getting from their diet already positively correlated with their working memory."

"Before seeing this data, I would have said it was impossible to move young healthy individuals above their cognitive best," he remarked. "We found that members of this population can enhance their working memory performance even further, despite their already being at the top of their cognitive game."

Although the researchers had suggested increases in dopamine storage and a protein involved in decision making in a particular area of the brain as mechanisms supporting omega-3's effect on cognitive function, PET scan results failed to support the hypothesis. "It is really interesting that diets enriched with omega-3 fatty acid can enhance cognition in highly functional young individuals," Dr Narendran commented. "Nevertheless, it was a bit disappointing that our imaging studies were unable to clarify the mechanisms by which it enhances working memory."

"So many of the previous studies have been done with the elderly or people with medical conditions, leaving this unique population of young adults unaddressed," coauthor Matthew F. Muldoon noted. "But what about our highest-functioning periods? Can we help the brain achieve its full potential by adapting our healthy behaviors in our young adult life? We found that we absolutely can."

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How DHA helps the brain

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In an article published online on June 20, 2012 in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton provide an explanation for the ability of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, found in oily fish and algae) to support memory.

A team led by Yves Sauve, who is a member of the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, divided ten mice to receive a diet supplemented with DHA or an unsupplemented diet. Animals that received DHA-enhanced diets were found to have a 29 percent higher level of DHA in the brain's hippocampus region—which is involved in memory--compared to the control group. Higher DHA levels were associated with increased synaptic transmission in the hippocampus following brief stimulation. "This increase in synaptic transmission might provide a physiological correlation for the improved spatial learning and memory observed following DHA supplementation," the authors conclude.

"We wanted to find out how fish intake improves memory," explained Dr Sauve, who works in the University's department of physiology, the department of ophthalmology and the Centre for Neuroscience. "What we discovered is that memory cells in the hippocampus could communicate better with each other and better relay messages when DHA levels in that region of the brain were higher. This could explain why memory improves on a high-DHA diet."

He added that supplementing your diet with DHA, either by increasing fish intake or by consuming omega-3 supplements, may help protect against reduced brain DHA levels as we age.

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