Most well known for their role in promoting cardiovascular health, omega-3 fatty acids are proving to be beneficial in many other areas of health as well. One of these areas—mental and cognitive function—is especially promising. It’s also very exciting, given the devastating impact mental illness and cognitive deficits can have on individuals and society.

But while studies are accumulating on using omega 3s to address mental and cognitive dysfunction, little research exists on how these fatty acids affect typical brain development. Now a study published in the January 2016 issue of Nutrients seeks to shed light on what happens when omega 3s are administered to typically developing adolescents. Adolescence is a time during which the brain’s prefrontal cortex undergoes substantial development. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-order brain functions—also known as executive functions. Executive functions are integral to academic performance, as they encompass inhibition and interference, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. All of these are essential to reasoning and problem solving. Therefore, supporting brain development during adolescence can have important lifelong benefits.

The current study was part of a larger double-blind, randomized placebo controlled trial called Food2Learn. The study investigated the association between omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive performance in typically developing children between the ages of 13 and 15 by looking at omega 3 levels in the blood and the results of a battery of cognitive tests. Using multiple regression analyses and correcting for covariates, the researchers found a significant association between omega-3 levels and scores on 2 of the 9 executive function measures: impulsivity and information processing speed.

Omega 3 supplementation is safe and relatively inexpensive. Given the association outlined here between higher levels of omega 3s in the blood and enhanced cognitive function—as well as previous studies that have pointed to similar benefits during this time of prefrontal cortex development—it may be wise to recommend omega 3 supplements to adolescents.

van der Wurff IS, von Schacky C, Berge K, Zeegers MP, Kirschner PA, de Groot RH. Association between blood omega-3 index and cognition in typically developing Dutch adolescents. Nutrients. 2016;8(1). pii: E13. doi: 10.3390/nu8010013.

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