Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Maternal, Fetal, Infant and Child Wellbeing

Ellen Mozurkewich; Deborah R Berman; Julie Chilimigras


Expert Rev of Obstet Gynecol. 2010;5(1):125-138. 

In This Article

Attention & Behavior

Evidence from Epidemiologic Studies

In his 'Barker Hypothesis', Barker speculated that nutritional factors (specifically undernutrition) during fetal life might place children at risk for certain morbidities during childhood and adulthood, particularly coronary artery disease and diabetes.[86] Recent research suggests that events during fetal life may also predispose children to psychiatric morbidity.[87] Rat feeding studies have found that a prenatal diet with excess omega-6 fatty acids and deficient omega-3 fatty acids have irreversible reductions in the DHA content of the hypothalamus of the offspring. These deficiencies are not entirely reversed after omega-3 fatty acid repletion, suggesting that certain neurobehaviors may be 'set' by the fatty acid content of the prenatal diet.[88] Thus, low maternal omega-3 fatty acid consumption may put the developing child at risk for suboptimal cognitive development and later development of attention and mood disorders.

In a longitudinal analysis of the relationship between umbilical blood DHA at birth and problem behavior at 7 years of age among 393 children, Krabbendam demonstrated a significant inverse relationship between DHA at birth and internalizing problem behaviors at 7 years of age.[89] Similarly, school-age children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been demonstrated to have significantly lower plasma levels of DHA and arachidonic acid than normal controls.[90] However, no differences in dietary intake have been demonstrated, suggesting that the observed differences may result from genetic alterations in fatty acid metabolism among children with ADHD, making them more vulnerable to dietary deficiencies.[90] To test this hypothesis, Brookes et al. carried out a case–control study comparing single nucleotide polymorphisms in fatty acid desaturase genes. These genes code for the enzymes that catalyze the conversion of linoleic acid and α-linolenic acid into arachidonic acid and EPA. The investigators compared single nucleotide polymorphisms for these genes in children with ADHD and ethnically matched controls. They found a significant association of ADHD with single nucleotide polymorphism rs498793 in the fatty acid desaturase two gene, suggesting that alterations in the ability of affected individuals to synthesize LC-PUFA from the parent fatty acids may be associated with this disorder.[91] However, there is currently no evidence from clinical trials on whether behavior and attention disorders might be prevented by prenatal omega-3 fatty acid supplementation.


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