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Monkeys Fed Omega-3s Show Big Brain Benefits
Functional MRI scans reveal that fish fats build stronger neural networks
2/10/2014By Craig Weatherby
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A new MRI study in monkeys supports positive signs from similar studies in people.
And it strengthens the case that kids and expectant mothers need plenty of fish and/or fish oil … a case bolstered by research from NIH psychiatrist Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D.
For more on his research, see “Findings Verify Value of Higher Maternal Fish Intake” and related articles in the Omega-3s & Child Development section of our news archive.
The new brain-scan study in monkey was preceded by human research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) … see “Omega-3s Boost Boys’ Brains in MRI Scans” and “Omega-3s Seen Boosting Performance of Healthy Young Brains”.
Implications for
treating human brain trauma?
Judging by recent cases and animal studies, omega-3 DHA therapy may aid brain trauma victims … though that highly plausible hypothesis needs confirmation by clinical studies.
A human therapeutic trial is underway at the University of North Carolina, examining whether omega-3 DHA from fish oil affects long-term brain function in retired pro football players.
For the background to that trial, see “Miner’s Miracle Leads Stellar Omega-3 Summary”, “Teen’s Brain Saved by Omega-3s?”, “Omega-3 Curbed Traumatic Brain Injury in Rats”, and related articles in the Omega-3s & Brain Health section of our news archive.
Unlike those short-term human studies, the new monkey research probed the brain-building benefits of a lifetime of eating ample omega-3s from fish.
The OHSU study is the first to use functional brain imaging (fMRI) scans to see the “large-scale interaction of multiple brain networks” in monkeys.
These patterns in monkeys are highly similar to the networks seen in humans, using the same imaging technique. 
Monkey study employs brain scans to see omega-3s' effects
The new research comes from Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) … home of the Oregon National Primate Research Center.
The study was led by Damien Fair, PA-C, Ph.D., assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience and psychiatry (Grayson DS et al. 2014).
He received the 2013 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Obama, and is a leader in using brain imaging to explore networks in children with ADHD and autism.
Dr. Fair’s team studied a group of older rhesus macaque monkeys – 17 to 19 years of age – that had been fed all of their lives either a diet low or high in omega-3s, including DHA.
DHA is the sole omega-3 critical to brain structure, function, and development (Innis SM 2008).
We can make DHA from the omega-3 found in plant foods (ALA) … but only one to 10 percent gets converted into DHA.
And the standard American diet’s extreme excess of omega-6s – mostly from from cheap vegetables oils (corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed) – reduces that conversion rate substantially.
In fact, diets high in omega-6s reduce omega-3 DHA levels in the brains of young pigs, and inhibit growth of connections among their brain cells (Novak EM et al. 2008).
Earlier research by study co-author Martha Neuringer, Ph.D., of OHSU proved the importance of DHA for infants’ visual development … which led to the addition of omega-3 DHA to infant formulas (Neuringer M et al. 1986).
Positive results support more tests in humans
The results were very encouraging, with monkeys fed the high-DHA diet showing several key advantages:
  • Stronger “connectivity of early visual pathways”.
  • Highly connected and well organized neural networks.
  • More connections within various brain networks similar to the human brain … including networks for higher-level processing and cognition (thinking).
In contrast, brain networking looked much more limited in monkeys fed the diet low in omega-3s.
As Dr. Fair, said, “The data shows the benefits in how the monkeys' brains organize over their lifetime in the setting of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids.” (OHSU 2014)
“For example”, he continued, “we could see activity and connections within areas of the macaque brain that are important in the human brain for attention.” (OHSU 2014)
According to professor Fair, the next step is to see whether monkeys with deficits in certain brain networks exhibit behavior patterns similar to those in humans with conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and autism.
He hopes to use these non-invasive brain imaging techniques to provide an important link between research in humans and animals in order to better characterize, treat, and prevent developmental brain health problems.
The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
  • Grayson DS, Kroenke CD, Neuringer M, Fair DA. Dietary omega-3 Fatty acids modulate large-scale systems organization in the rhesus macaque brain. J Neurosci. 2014 Feb 5;34(6):2065-74. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3038-13.2014.
  • Innis SM. Dietary omega 3 fatty acids and the developing brain. Brain Res. 2008 Oct 27;1237:35-43. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2008.08.078. Epub 2008 Sep 9. Review.
  • Neuringer M, Connor WE, Lin DS, Barstad L, Luck S. Biochemical and functional effects of prenatal and postnatal omega 3 fatty acid deficiency on retina and brain in rhesus monkeys. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1986 Jun;83(11):4021-5.
  • Novak EM, Dyer RA, Innis SM. High dietary omega-6 fatty acids contribute to reduced docosahexaenoic acid in the developing brain and inhibit secondary neurite growth. Brain Res. 2008 Oct 27;1237:136-45. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2008.07.107. Epub 2008 Aug 5.
  • Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). Monkeys that eat omega-3 rich diet show more developed brain networks. February 5, 2014. Accessed at
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