Small pilot study reveals rapid growth of grey tissue and increased networking among brain cells
by Craig Weatherby
Earlier this month, we summarized findings that adults who consumed more omega-3s from food had more grey matter in a part of the brain associated with improved mood, and scored better (happier) on depression tests (See “Omega-3s Display More Brain-Mood Benefits”).
So it was interesting to come across related research from England, which also involved growth in grey matter linked to omega-3 intake.
This new study demonstrated astonishingly rapid advances in brain development and learning among the participating children.
Researchers from Imperial College London enrolled four overweight children, aged eight to 13, and instructed the parents to give the children capsules containing 560 mg of omega-3 EPA (from fish oil) and 200 mg of omega-6 GLA (from evening primrose oil), everyday for three months.
In addition to taking the fatty acid supplements, the kids were encouraged to cut back on soda and snacks and engage in more physical activity.
The results remain unpublished as of now, but the researchers' preliminary report fits with what's already known about omega-3s and brain function.
Results show positive brain changes and enhanced mental abilities
By the end of the three-month pilot study, all four children displayed improved reading, concentration, memory and problem-solving capacities.
In addition, the children’s “reading age” advanced by well over a year, their handwriting was neater, and they were better able to stay focused in class
The most startling results stem from the researchers’ decision to give the children MRI brain scans.
The MRIs revealed increased levels of N-Acetylaspartate (NAA), which is a key indicator of brain development.
Brain development occurs when neurons (brain cells) form functional networks by out-growing axons and dendrites: the brainy “branches” collectively called “neurites”, which connect to other neurons electro-chemically via synapses.
As lead researcher Basant Puri told The Scotsman newspaper: “The results were astonishing. In three months you might expect to see a small NAA increase. But we saw as much growth as you would normally see in three years.”
“It was as if these were the brains of children three years older. It means you have more connections and greater density of nerve cells, in the same way that a tree grows more branches.”
Professor Puri also told the The Scotsman that the parents of a 13-year-old named Gareth were astounded by the changes: “Gareth's parents told me how he had suddenly found TV boring, as he wanted to read. Three months earlier he was saying he couldn't understand people who loved books” (Moss L 2007).
The Imperial College team said that the supplements deserve credit for the improvements, because the children’s diets did not change significantly.
What about the omega-6 fatty acid?
The supplements that the children took contained omega-6 GLA (gamma linoleic acid), which muddies the waters somewhat. But it probably had little to do with the observed changes in the kids’ brains and behavior.
The body uses GLA to make omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA), which is essential to cell membrane functions and creation of specific kinds of the ephemeral, hormone-like messenger chemicals called prostaglandins.
Accordingly, supplemental GLA can be beneficial to the skin health and immune responses of people whose bodies have difficulty making AA from the dietary omega-6 called linoleic acid (LA), which is abundant in most cooking oils—other than olive, macadamia nut, and hi-oleic sunflower oils—and the processed foods made with them.
However, the UK researchers had no indication that any of the children suffered from this rare metabolic impairment, and our search of the medical literature uncovered little evidence that GLA enhances brain function or neurite growth in such a dramatic fashion.
In fact, cell studies offer some evidence that AA—which the body makes from GLA—may reduce the outgrowth of neurites (Ikemoto A et al 1997).
In contrast, EPA is essential to optimal brain function, and the body uses EPA to make DHA: the other important omega-3 fatty acid found in human cell membranes... and in fish oils.
And the results of clinical trials testing fish oils in people with depression and attention-deficit disorders suggest that supplements with higher ratios of omega-3 EPA to omega-3 DHA tend to show greater benefits, compared with supplements containing lower EPA-to-DHA ratios.
(Our Sockeye Salmon Oil is filtered but otherwise unaltered, so it reflects the ratio that occurs naturally in sockeye salmon: about nine parts EPA to seven parts DHA.)
We hope that the truly amazing results of this small study will prompt others to undertake a larger, placebo-controlled follow-up trial.
- Moss L. Dietary supplement sees children's mental powers advance by three years in three months. The Scotsman. Accessed online March 20, 2007 at http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=773&id=387102007.
- Calderon F, Kim HY. Docosahexaenoic acid promotes neurite growth in hippocampal neurons. J Neurochem. 2004 Aug;90(4):979-88. Erratum in: J Neurochem. 2004 Sep;90(6):1540.
- Cao D, Xue R, Xu J, Liu Z. Effects of docosahexaenoic acid on the survival and neurite outgrowth of rat cortical neurons in primary cultures. J Nutr Biochem. 2005 Sep;16(9):538-46.
- Ikemoto A, Ohishi M, Sato Y, Hata N, Misawa Y, Fujii Y, Okuyama H. Reversibility of n-3 fatty acid deficiency-induced alterations of learning behavior in the rat: level of n-6 fatty acids as another critical factor. J Lipid Res. 2001 Oct;42(10):1655-63.
- Dehaut F, Bertrand I, Miltaud T, Pouplard-Barthelaix A, Maingault M. n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids increase the neurite length of PC12 cells and embryonic chick motoneurons. Neurosci Lett. 1993 Oct 29;161(2):133-6.
- Ikemoto A, Kobayashi T, Watanabe S, Okuyama H. Membrane fatty acid modifications of PC12 cells by arachidonate or docosahexaenoate affect neurite outgrowth but not norepinephrine release. Neurochem Res. 1997 Jun;22(6):671-8.