PERTH, AUSTRALIA. Normal neuronal and visual development of infants depends on the availability of large amounts of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). Several studies have shown that maternal supplementation with relatively low doses of fish oils improves attention and mental processing in young children. There is also evidence that term infants fed on DHA-enriched formula develop better visual acuity.
Supplementing with oils from fish (DHA) is known to cause a reduction in the availability of arachidonic acid and, since ARA is also required for brain development, there is some concern that supplementation with large doses of fish oil may reduce ARA availability to such an extent as to be detrimental.
Researchers at the University of Western Australia addressed this concern in a clinical trial involving 83 pregnant women. The women were randomized to receive placebo (olive oil) or fish oil (providing 1.1 gram/day of EPA and 2.2 grams/day of DHA) from 20 weeks’ gestation until birth. An analysis of phospholipid fatty acids from erythrocytes (red blood cells) in cord blood of newborns found that infants born to fish oil supplemented mother had a 225% higher EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) content in their blood than did those born to control mothers. DHA content was 39% higher and ARA content 15% lower.
The effects on infants’ growth and brain development were evaluated at age 2.5 years. No significant differences were found in height, weight, and head circumference between children born to mothers who had supplemented with fish oil and those born to mothers in the placebo group. There was, however, a difference in eye and hand coordination between the two groups with children born to supplemented mothers performing significantly better when measured using the Griffiths Mental Development Scale. The researchers also noted a significantly higher level of EPA and DHA (and a lower level of ARA) in the cord blood of children with superior eye and hand coordination. The researchers conclude that maternal fish oil supplementation during pregnancy is safe for the fetus and infant, and may have potentially beneficial effects on the child’s eye and hand coordination.
Dunstan, JA, et al. Cognitive assessment of children at age 2½ years after maternal fish oil supplementation in pregnancy. Archives of Disease in Childhood. Fetal and Neonatal Edition. 2006 December 21 [Epub ahead of print]