, Volume 34, Supplement 1, pp S39–S47 | Cite as

Evidence for the unique function of docosahexaenoic acid during the evolution of the modern hominid brain

  • M. A. CrawfordEmail author
  • M. Bloom
  • C. L. Broadhurst
  • W. F. Schmidt
  • S. C. Cunnane
  • C. Galli
  • K. Gehbremeskel
  • F. Linseisen
  • J. Lloyd-Smith
  • J. Parkington
Plenary Lectures


The African savanna ecosystem of the large mammals and primates was associated with a dramatic decline in relative brain capacity associated with little docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is required for brain structures and growth. The biochemistry implies that the expansion of the human brain required a plentiful source of preformed DHA. The richest source of DHA is the marine food chain, while the savanna environment offers very little of it. ConsequentlyHomo sapiens could not have evolved on the savannas. Recent fossil evidence indicates that the lacustrine and marine food chain was being extensively exploited at the time cerebral expansion took place and suggests the alternative that the transition from the archaic to modern humans took place at the land/water interface. Contemporary data on tropical lakeshore dwellers reaffirm the above view with nutritional support for the vascular system, the development of which would have been a prerequisite for cerebral expansion. Both arachidonic acid and DHA would have been freely available from such habitats providing the double stimulus of preformed acyl components for the developing blood vessels and brain. The n-3 docosapentaenoic acid precursor (n-3 DPA) was the major n-3-metabolite in the savanna mammals. Despite this abundance, neither it nor the corresponding n-6 DPA was used for the photoreceptor nor the synapse. A substantial difference between DHA and other fatty acids is required to explain this high specificity. Studies on fluidity and other mechanical features of cell membranes did not reveal a difference of such magnitude between even α-linolenic acid and DHA sufficient to explain the exclusive use of DHA. We suggest that the evolution of the large human brain depended on a rich source of DHA from the land/water interface. We review a number of proposals for the possible influence of DHA on physical properties of the brain that are essential for its function.


Arachidonic Acid Essential Fatty Acid Docosahexaenoic Acid Rift Valley Docosapentaenoic Acid 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



arachidonic acid


docosahexaenoic acid

n-3 DPA

n-3 docosapentaenoic acid


long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid




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Copyright information

© AOCS Press 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. A. Crawford
    • 1
    Email author
  • M. Bloom
    • 2
  • C. L. Broadhurst
    • 3
  • W. F. Schmidt
    • 3
  • S. C. Cunnane
    • 4
  • C. Galli
    • 5
  • K. Gehbremeskel
    • 1
  • F. Linseisen
    • 2
  • J. Lloyd-Smith
    • 2
  • J. Parkington
    • 6
  1. 1.Institute of Brain ChemistryLondonUnited Kingdom
  2. 2.Department of PhysicsUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  3. 3.USDA BeltsvilleEnvironmental Chemistry Laboratory
  4. 4.Department of Nutritional SciencesUniversity of TorontoCanada
  5. 5.Institute of Pharmacological SciencesMilanItaly
  6. 6.Archaeology DepartmentUniversity of CapetownCapetownSouth Africa

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