European Journal of Nutrition

, Volume 55, Issue 7, pp 2255–2264 | Cite as

The content of docosahexaenoic acid in the maternal diet differentially affects the immune response in lactating dams and suckled offspring

  • Caroline Richard
  • Erin D. Lewis
  • Susan Goruk
  • Catherine J. FieldEmail author
Original Contribution



The objective of this study was to determine the effect of feeding a maternal diet supplemented with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) while also containing adequate amounts of arachidonic acid on immune system development and function in suckled offspring and lactating rats.


Sprague–Dawley dams were randomized to one of the two nutritionally adequate experimental diets 24–48 h prior to parturition: control diet (N = 12, 0 % DHA) or high DHA diet (N = 8, 0.9 % DHA of total fatty acids). Diets were fed throughout the lactating/suckling period (21 days), and then, dams and pups were terminated, and immune cell phenotypes and cytokine production by mitogen- or ovalbumin-stimulated splenocytes were measured.


Feeding dams a high DHA diet resulted in a higher proportion of 18:3n-3, 22:5n-3 and 22:6n-3 found in pup’s stomach content (breast milk; P < 0.01). Feeding the high DHA diet had no impact on growth parameters or the ex vivo cytokine production by mitogen-stimulated splenocytes in both dams and pups. There was a higher proportion of OX12+CD80+ cells and a lower production of TGF-β by splenocytes after ovalbumin stimulation in pups from dams fed the DHA diet (both P < 0.05) while maintaining a similar IL-2 production. LPS-stimulated splenocytes from dams fed the high DHA diet produced more TNF-α versus control diet (P < 0.05).


Overall, our results suggest that DHA supplementation in the maternal diet does not change the immune response to mitogens but positively affects the activation of B cells as well as the response to a potential food antigen upon challenge in suckled offspring.


Immune system Lactation Spleen Offspring Development 



Arachidonic acid


α-Linolenic acid


Concanavalin A


Docosahexaenoic acid


Docosapentaenoic acid








Monounsaturated fatty acid






Polyunsaturated fatty acid


Saturated fatty acid


Transforming growth factor-beta


Tumor necrosis factor-alpha



The authors would like to acknowledge the technical assistance of Nicole Coursen and Marnie Newell. We express our gratitude to Peter Blenis who helped with the statistical analysis. We also thank the undergraduate students, Dev Dutta, Michael Lee and David Ma, who were involved in data collection and analysis throughout the project. C.R. is recipient of postdoctoral fellow scholarships from Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Fonds de Recherche en Santé du Québec and Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Postdoctoral Fellowships. EDL is recipient of a Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship and Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship.

Sources of funding

This study was supported by a Discovery grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

Authors report no conflict of interest in relation with this study.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Caroline Richard
    • 1
  • Erin D. Lewis
    • 1
  • Susan Goruk
    • 1
  • Catherine J. Field
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science, 4-126A Li Ka Shing Center for Health Research InnovationUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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