The omega-3 fatty acid called DHA – which occurs in
significant amounts only in fish oil and mothers’ milk – dominates the
structures of human brains and retinas, and is essential to their
This has led to decades of research designed to
determine whether mothers’ intake of DHA enhances the development of
their children’s brains and vision.
There is substantial evidence that higher fish or fish
oil intake by mothers and infants -- or use of infant formulas
fortified with DHA -- can yield developmental benefits, although the
results have been mixed. A new study from Australia adds significant
new evidence that infants’ brains benefit when their mothers take fish
It also indicates a down side to excessive consumption
of the omega-6 fatty acids consumed in gross excess by most Americans,
which compete with the omega-3s in fish oil for inclusion in human cell
membranes. Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in most vegetable oils (except
olive, macadamia, and hi-oleic sunflower oils) and in the packaged and
restaurant foods in which they are typically used.
Researchers at the University of Western Australia
conducted a well-designed (double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled)
clinical trial among 83 non-smoking women who agreed to eat no more
than two portions of fish per week.
Some of the participating women received placebo
capsules containing four grams of olive oil, while the others were
given capsules containing four grams of fish oil, including 2.2 grams
of omega-3 DHA and 1.1 grams of omega-3 EPA.
The supplement regimen began at 20 weeks after
conception, and continued until delivery.
Their infants were examined and tested when they were
2 1/2 years old, to evaluate their language skills, behavior, practical
reasoning capacity, and hand-eye coordination.
Results favor fish oil and put omega-6 fats in a
The children of mothers who’d taken fish oil
supplements displayed significantly better hand-eye coordination,
scored higher on measures of vocabulary and language comprehension, and
the average phrase-length of their speech was longer.
These findings persisted after the researchers took
into account other potentially influential factors, including the
mother's age and the duration of breast feeding.
As the researchers said, “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
It was clear the omega-3s in the fish oil were
responsible, since improved good hand-eye coordination also correlated
with high levels of omega-3s in umbilical cords at birth.
And it is important to note that the children with
higher tissue levels of omega-6 fatty acids had the lowest scores: a
finding that offers further evidence that these nutrients can be
counterproductive when consumed in excess, as is usual in developed