, Volume 36, Issue 9, pp 885-895

First online:

Essential fatty acids in visual and brain development

  • Ricardo UauyAffiliated withInstitute of Nutrition and Food Technology (INTA), University of ChileRetina Foundation of the Southwest Email author 
  • , Dennis R. HoffmanAffiliated withRetina Foundation of the Southwest
  • , Patricio PeiranoAffiliated withInstitute of Nutrition and Food Technology (INTA), University of Chile
  • , David G. BirchAffiliated withRetina Foundation of the Southwest
  • , Eileen E. BirchAffiliated withRetina Foundation of the Southwest

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Essential fatty acids are structural components of all tissues and are indispensable for cell membrane synthesis; the brain, retina and other neural tissues are particularly rich in long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA). These fatty acids serve as specific precursors for eicosanoids, which regulate numerous cell and organ functions. Recent human studies support the essential nature of n-3 fatty acids in addition to the well-established role of n−6 essential fatty acids in humans, particularly in early life. The main findings are that light sensitivity of retinal rod photoreceptors is significantly reduced in newborns with n−3 fatty acid deficiency, and that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) significantly enhances visual acuity maturation and cognitive functions. DHA is a conditionally essential nutrient for adequate neurodevelopment in humans. Comprehensive clinical studies have shown that dietary supplementation with marine oil or single-cell oil sources of LC-PUFA results in increased blood levels of DHA and arachidonic acid, as well as an associated improvement in visual function in formula-fed infants matching that of human breast-fed infants. The effect is mediated not only by the known effects on membrane biophysical properties, neurotransmitter content, and the corresponding electrophysiological correlates but also by a modulating gene expression of the developing retina and brain. Intracellular fatty acids or their metabolites regulate transcriptional activation of gene expression during adipocyte differentiation and retinal and nervous system development. Regulation of gene expression by LC-PUFA occurs at the transcriptional level and may be mediated by nuclear transcription factors activated by fatty acids. These nuclear receptors are part of the family of steroid hormone receptors. DHA also has significant effects on photoreceptor membranes and neurotransmitters involved in the signal transduction process; rhodopsin activation, rod and cone development, neuronal dendritic connectivity, and functional maturation of the central nervous system.