Higher omega 3 index linked to better brain function in children

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01 Aug 2018 --- New research published in the July edition of the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry has pointed to a strong correlation between blood levels of omega 3s, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and better brain function in children aged two to six years old. Although the benefits of omega 3s in certain populations are hotly debated, the authors of this study conclude that these findings provided an “impetus for further studies into possible interventions to improve essential fatty acid status of children in developing countries.”

The objective of this cross-sectional study was to investigate the relationship between whole-blood fatty acids (FAs) and executive function in 307 children (two to six years old) from Northern Ghana. The aim of researchers was to examine the extent to which higher levels of EPA and/or DHA were associated with better cognitive performance. Dried blood spot samples were collected and analyzed for FA content. 

The children underwent a battery of cognitive function tests. Specifically, the dimensional change card sort (DCCS) task was used to assess executive function. The DCCS asks that the child sort a series of bivalent cards based on one of two instructed dimensions (i.e., either color or shape). Following sorting an initial series of eight cards based upon color, the child is instructed to switch the categorization dimension and sort another series of eight cards based upon shape. This dimensional change in sorting behavior provides an index of executive function as the child must suppress their previously learned set of rules (i.e., sorting by color) and attentional inertia towards those attributes in order to flexibly adjust their behavioral actions and attention to sort the cards by a new set of rules (i.e., sorting by shape).

The average mega 3 Index (red blood cell EPA + DHA level) in this group was 4.6 percent, with a range of 2.3 percent to 11.7 percent. Significant differences in mean  percent total whole-blood fatty acids were observed between children who could not follow directions on the DCCS test (50 percent of the sample) and those who could (50 percent of the sample). Children with the highest levels of total omega 3s and DHA were three and four times, respectively, more likely to pass at least one condition of the DCCS test of executive function than those with the lowest levels. 

According to the authors, this study, Whole blood n-3 fatty acids are associated with executive function in 2-6-year-old northern ghanaian children, has several strengths. One of these is that it used an objective biomarker to assess dietary fatty acid intake (i.e., the Omega-3 Index), as opposed to other conventional and less precise methods such as food frequency questionnaires or diet history techniques. Food frequency questionnaires are not highly accurate at estimating circulating blood levels of fatty acids.

One of the study’s investigators, Dr. Bill Harris, founder of OmegaQuant, and co-inventor of the Omega-3 Index test, says the results are very encouraging for these children, who are probably the most disadvantaged when it comes to omega 3 consumption. 

“Children in developing countries like Ghana do not have the access to omega 3-rich sources that children from other parts of the world do. This has several ramifications, particularly in the area of brain development and cognitive function,” Harris says. “We were happy to see the positive correlation between omega 3 levels and better brain function, especially since an omega 3 deficiency is so easy to correct. All it requires is consuming more of the right omega 3s, especially DHA which in this case was the standout fatty acid here.” 

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