‘Life-altering benefits’: DHA Omega-3 supplements boost cognition in malnourished children

By Stephen Daniells contact

- Last updated on GMT

The study found that DHA from fish helped boost cognitive development in children with severe acute malnutrition.   Image © itakdalee / Getty Images
The study found that DHA from fish helped boost cognitive development in children with severe acute malnutrition. Image © itakdalee / Getty Images

Related tags: Dha, Dha omega-3, Omega-3 fatty acids, brain development, Cognitive function, infant development, Malnutrition

Fortifying ready-to-eat therapeutic foods with DHA-rich fish oil may significantly improve brain development in malnourished infants and children, says a triple-blind, randomized, controlled clinical feeding trial.

Adding the DHA-rich fish oil to a peanut-based, vegetable-oil rich ready-to-eat-therapeutic foods (RUTF) led to significant improvements in global developmental scores, driven by gross motor, and social scores in children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM). Examples of gross motor skills include unassisted walking, hopping, or tossing a ball, and social skills include intentional pointing or drinking from a cup.

“This study provides the first direct evidence that reduction in [linoleic acid] and addition of DHA in RUTF enhances cognition in SAM children,” ​wrote the authors, led by Kevin Stephenson and Meghan Callaghan-Gillespie from Washington University in St. Louis. “This finding is consonant with a body of evidence that extends over many decades, methodologies, and species.

“The need to enhance cognitive recovery in SAM is substantial, even crucial, as this insult affects tens of millions of children annually.”

85 million children…

The authors noted that about 85 million children around the world will develop severe acute malnutrition during their first five years and leads to physical and mental development delays.

The standard of care for SAM is a vegetable oil-rich, peanut-based ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) but these do not contain long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to be important for brain development in infancy and childhood.

The new study compared the brain development in over 2,500 children in Malawi with SAM consuming a standard RUTF or RFT fortified with DHA-rich fish oil from Ohio-based AlaskOmega.

Commenting on the study, Gretchen Vannice, Director of Nutrition Education and Research at Wiley Companies, parent company of the AlaskOmega brand, said: “We were thrilled to participate in this important project and contribute to research demonstrating the life-altering benefits of omega-3 nutrition on cognitive development.”

Study details

The six-month intervention study included 2,565 children with SAM, randomly assigned them to one of three groups: The first group received a standard RUTF; the second group received a high-oleic acid RUTF (with reduced linoleic acid levels); while the third group received the high-oleic acid RUTF fortified with DHA. The omega-3 content of the food as a percentage of energy was 1.0%, 3.0%, and 4.0%, respectively.

Scores from the Malawi Developmental Assessment Tool (MDAT) showed that all the children experienced positive benefits of all the RUTF interventions, and these were sustained after the six months of study. However, the improvements in global development scores were significantly higher in the DHA-fed group compared to the other two groups. Additionally, the DHA-fed children had higher gross motor and social scores compared to the standard RUTF. Children in group 2 (the high-oleic acid-only group) were found to have higher social scores than those receiving the standard RUTF.

The researchers noted that the data shows that “changing the composition of RUTF to reduce the insult of SAM is safe, feasible, and effective”​.

Dr. Tom Brenna, co-senior study author and Professor of Pediatrics at the Dell Pediatric Research Institute, University of Texas at Austin, added: “Our study shows that balanced fats and including omega-3 DHA is important for long term mental development in the 16 million children who suffer annually from severe acute malnutrition.

“As importantly, this study highlights the central role of nutrition specifically for brain development in all children.”

Source: The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqab363
“Low linoleic acid foods with added DHA given to Malawian children with severe acute malnutrition improve cognition: a randomized, triple blinded, controlled clinical trial”
Authors: K. Stephenson, et al.

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