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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Omega-3s Seen Boosting Performance of Healthy Young Brains
Studies reveal mechanisms underlying fish-fueled mental gains and imply special benefits to learning and decision-making in adolescents 02/16/2011 by Craig Weatherby
Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, findings from recent brain research combine to present a promising picture in which dietary omega-3s appear especially helpful to developing brains of children, adolescents, and young adults.


This confluence of findings signals progress in our understanding of the brain benefits of omega-3s, given that prior research focused on aging and diseased minds. 

Key Points

  • Results of separate studies combine to suggest that omega-3s may bring special benefits to teenage brains.
  • American research shows that teens' brains have more difficulty with tasks involving memory, focus, and decision making.
  • Italian trial finds that omega-3s enhance basic brain functions in healthy people aged 22 to 51, with implications for improved memory, mood, and decision making in adolescents.
The existing evidence suggests that dietary omega-3s can help alleviate depression and ADD/ADHD and deter Alzheimer's and other forms of senile dementia.This was because, until last year, the evidence stemmed from three sources:

  • Clinical trials involving people with mental disease or mood disorders
  • Population studies linking higher fish intake to lower risks of senile dementias and memory loss
  • Clinical trials in children with attention deficit disorders.

Consequently, these research results left unanswered the question of whether supplemental omega-3s (or diets high in fish) might also enhance mental function and mood in healthy people and in younger adults and adolescents.


Affirmative answers to this critical question began to appear last year, with publication of some omega-3 studies conducted in healthy middle-aged people. (See "Omega-3s Boost Brain Networks”, "Feel-Good Findings”, and "Omega-3s Enhance Mood and Brain Speed”.)


But we joined the news media in missing (until now) the exciting results of a small Italian clinical trial published in 2005: an overlooked investigation that features some of the most compelling and revealing findings about the benefits of omega-3s in healthy young brains.


Significantly, the Italian pilot study included some subjects as young as 22, whose brains were still undergoing the changes documented recently in adolescents.


And the Italians' highly positive findings dovetail with recent discoveries about the adolescent mind: breakthroughs with important implications for the role nutrition might play in helping teens with learning and decision-making.


Omega-3s and teenage brains: the critical frontal-cortex context

Before we relate the results of the Italians' groundbreaking research, it is critical to understand the new context in which their findings occurred: a setting that may lend them special significance with regard to children, adolescents, and young adults.


While 95 percent of the human brain develops by age six, the greatest growth spurts after infancy occur during adolescence. The cerebellum, now believed to play a significant role in coordinating thinking processes, undergoes dramatic growth and changes during adolescence. And recent research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans reveals continuous increases in the volume of brain "white matter” throughout adolescence along with decreases in the volume of "grey matter”.

Bizarre accident showed frontal lobes' role in brain function

The functions of the prefrontal cortex became evident in 1848 when an accidental explosion fired a three-foot-long, 13-pound iron rod up through the left cheek of Vermont rail work supervisor Phineas Gage, destroying his prefrontal cortex and leaving a 2-inch hole in his skull (See computer generated graphic below: the rod now lies in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University).


Incredibly, he survived the accident with no lasting affect on his memory, speech, or ability to walk and work. But whereas he had been hard-working, responsible, and even-tempered, Gage could no longer control his impulses. He began behaving badly, swearing constantly, and getting into frequent fights.


While some doubt has been cast on his doctor's claim of dramatic changes in Gage's personality, they accord well with what is now known about the functions of the prefrontal cortex. In any case, there is little doubt that Gage's story initiated scientific interest in the biological basis of behavior.


During the ensuing decades, physicians aware of Gage's case began noting that patients with similar damage to the frontal lobe suffered Gage-like personality changes, likewise had trouble controlling their impulses and became indifferent to people's feelings and to social conventions.

But the biggest differences between adult and teen brains appear operational/organizational in character, rather than structural/physical. The August-September edition of Scientific American Mind summarized recent findings that uncovered distinct operational differences between the brains of adults and adolescents.


The article, titled "The Teen Brain, Hard at Work”, detailed the results of research performed recently at the University ofPittsburgh, where scientists at the school's Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition used fMRI technology to scan the brains of teens and adults during brain-stressing visual-motor tests.


The Pittsburgh team found large differences between adult and adolescent brains in terms of activity within the prefrontal cortex: the part of the brain responsible for the "executive” functions that govern planning and voluntary behavior (Scherf KS et al 2006).


The frontal lobes of the brain play a part in impulse control, judgment, language, memory, motor function, problem solving, sexual behavior, socialization and spontaneity. The prefrontal cortex portion of the frontal lobes is involved in planning complex behaviors, personality, and governing social behavior, and it is where the brain orchestrates thoughts and actions to meet goals.


Strains on the working capacities of the frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex would explain impulsive behavior among adolescents, and their difficulty in remembering and focusing on tasks and goals: like doing chores, getting homework done, and releasing the emergency brake before driving off in the family car.


The University of Pittsburgh tests show that in adolescent brains, the prefrontal cortex works much harder than in adult brains to perform these executive tasks and enforce focus (i.e., ignore external stimuli to focus on goal-oriented tasks).


In fact, the amount of prefrontal cortex taxed by the tests approximated the portion adult brains use when performing much harder tasks. According to study co-author Beatriz Luna, Ph.D., this heavy dependence on the prefrontal cortex "…can lead to error, especially when difficulty increases.”

The article in Scientific American Mind described what they saw, "The MRI images show alterations in the wiring among neurons involved in decision making, judgment and impulse control, as well as in the wiring the prefrontal cortex uses to tie brain regions together. Along with other studies, the images show that the prefrontal cortex seems to continue maturing well into the 20s.”


Adult brains were seen to spread these tasks around the organ and perform them more quickly and easily, with fewer mental resources.


As Dr. Luna told Scientific American Mind, "Adolescents show similar capabilities of inhibition [of distracting external stimuli] compared with adults, but the fMRIs show that they are using up prefrontal cortex like crazy.” She went on to say that adults use other parts of the brain "…to collaborate and better distribute the workload.”


The Scientific American Mind article also pointed to learning-related implications of the Pittsburgh findings (key point underlined for emphasis):

"Full maturation of executive function occurs only as a completely integrated, collaborative brain system emerges, in the late teens and even in the early 20s… But in adolescents, a key contributor that helps to guide voluntary behavior—working memory—is also still developing. Luna's fMRI images support the conclusion that adolescents are not as efficient in recruiting areas that support working memory.”


It is hard to imagine two brain functions teens need more than memory and sound decision-making: they need the former for school and the latter to reduce the impulse-control and judgment problems seen more frequently in adolescence.


We should note that some psychologists and psychiatrists dispute the importance of these differences versus environmental influences, noting that adolescents in lower-income countries behave more like adults than do American teens.


While that may be partly true, there is no credible environmental explanation for the remarkably different images seen in fMRI scans of adults and teen brains, which hold clear implications for performance within the critical prefrontal cortex.


Surely, the fact that teenage brains display operational differences specific to their memory, judgment, and focus is significant. And because they are so broadly based, the performance enhancements brought by dietary omega-3s should minimize any partial deficiencies in teens' mental capacities versus those of adults.


Intriguing research results from Italy lend this hypothesis strong support and provide good reasons to presume that omega-3s might improve mental performance, focus, and behavior in adolescents. Let's take a look at what the Italians found when they tested omega-3s in healthy people, including some in their early 20's.


Italians probe fish-oil benefits in healthy brains: effects in frontal cortex called key

The results of a small pilot trial at Italy's University of Siena make it clear that omega-3s enhance fundamental aspects of brain function (Fontani G et al 2005): findings with implications for adolescent minds.


The University of Siena team recruited 49 healthy men and women from 22 to 51 years of age at local athletic associations, and divided them into two groups. For 35 days, 33 of the volunteers took capsules containing four grams of fish oil per day, while 16 participants constituted a control group, whose members took identical-looking and -tasting capsules containing olive oil.

"...the brains of people in the omega-3 group functioned more efficiently at the end of the 35-day study, and they were more likely to feel happy, calm, and energetic ..."

"…changes in brain wave activity suggest increased intellectual ability and memory performance, and lessened the likelihood of the inaccurate 'attentional switching' that leads to slower reaction times and inferior decisions."

All of the volunteers ate prescribed diets designed to eliminate the confounding effects of large amounts of foods that might affect brain function substantially.


On the first day of the study, all of the participants in both groups sat at computers loaded with four tests commonly used to determine the efficiency of brain function with regard to attention and reaction time, called "Alert”, "Go/No-Go”, "Choice”, and "Sustained Attention”.


During each test, the computer software recorded participants' responses, while their brain waves and reaction times were measured by electroencephalograms (EEG) and electromyography (EMG), respectively.


In addition, the researchers administered the standard "Profile of Mood States” test, to gauge the participants' psychological status with regard to happiness, anxiety, anger, and sense of vigor.


On day 35, the subjects were tested again using the same procedures, with these results in the omega-3 group:

  • Reaction time was reduced in the Go/No-Go, Sustained Attention, and Choice tests.
  • Mood profiles improved, with the subjects displaying increased vigor and reduced anger, anxiety and depression.
  • During all of the tests, the participants' EEGs recorded desirable shifts in their brain-wave frequencies, moving away from the beta band and towards the theta and alpha bands.

What is the significance of the brain-wave "frequency shifts seen in the EEGs? In short, they mean that the brains of people in the omega-3 group functioned more efficiently at the end of the 35-day study, and that they were more likely to feel happy, calm, and energetic, compared with the control group.


Here's how the Italians expressed the meaning of the brain-wave frequency shifts seen in the EEGs (clarifying text inserted between brackets [ ]):


  • "…the increase of lower frequencies [theta and alpha band] observed after Omega-3 supplementation could be owing to a better selection of neurons involved in the task, which supports the [hypothesis] that Omega-3 fatty acids improve neuronal [brain cell] efficiency.”
  • "The high frequency bands (beta) are thought to be related to emotional activity and anger, thus their reduction after Omega-3 [supplementation] could be related to the concomitant reduction of anger and the increase of vigor observed in the POMS [Profile of Mood States] test. This relationship is supported by the positive correlation between the increase of the theta band and the increase of the vigor state.”

In an aside that highlights the special benefits that omega-3s may bring to adolescent brains, they went on to explain that the changes in brain wave activity seen in the EEG recordings suggest increased intellectual ability and memory performance (especially short-term memory). They also explained that these changes decreased the likelihood of the inaccurate "attentional switching” that leads to slower reaction times and inferior decisions.


The Siena team also proposed a plausible mechanism that would account for these beneficial effects. As they said, "… [omega-3s] may influence several pathways with different neurotransmitters such as serotonin, noradrenalin, dopamine and acetylcholine, which may explain the reported effects on learning, mood stability and other important cognitive functions.”


The Italians concluded that the omega-3 supplements induced the improvements seen in the volunteers' moods and in their attentional and physiological functions: particularly those involving complex processing tasks in the frontal cortex.


We underlined the last point because of its relevance to teenage brains. As thePittsburgh research described above (see "Omega-3s and teenage brains”) found, the prefrontal cortex is overworked in adolescents' brains, leading to difficulties with memory, learning, and decision-making.


The results of this trial strengthen the hypothesis that omega-3 fatty acids deliver their mood and brain-performance benefits throughout the brain and central nervous system.


And the Italians' findings hold special significance for adolescent brains, because the trial was conducted in a group that included young, physically fit people.


As the Siena team said, "…it may be assumed that the importance of these results is strengthened by the fact that they occur in subjects in good health and performing physical activity in whom Omega-3 fatty acids improve an already good condition of well-being.”


Together with the explosive saga of Phineas Gage (see our "Bizarre accident” sidebar, above), the results of these separate, inadvertently connected studies suggest that it's a good idea to give teenagers fish oil capsules… with regular reminders to take them.



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