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Essential fatty acids, DHA and human brain


Essential fatty acids cannot be synthesized in the body but they are required for maintenance of optimal health. There are two classes of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)- omega-6 and omega-3. The parent omega-6 fatty acid, linoleic acid (LA) is desaturated in the body to form arachidonic acid while parent omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is desaturated by microsomal enzyme system through a series of metabolic steps to form eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and decosahexaenoic acid (DHA). But there is a limited metabolic capability during early life to metabolize PUFAs to more active long-chain fatty acids. There is a critical role of EFAs and their metabolic products for maintenance of structural and functional integrity of central nervous system and retina. Most of the brain growth is completed by 5–6 years of age. At birth brain weight is 70% of an adult, 15% brain growth occurs during infancy and remaining brain growth is completed during preschool years. DHA is the predominant structural fatty acid in the central nervous system and retina and its availability is crucial for brain development. It is recommended that the pregnant and nursing woman should take at least 2.6g of omega-3 fatty acids and 100–300 mg of DHA daily to look after the needs of her fetus and suckling infant. The follow-up studies have shown that infants of mothers supplemented with EFAs and DHA had higher mental processing scores, psychomotor development, eye-hand coordination and stereo acuity at 4 years of age. Intake of EFAs and DHA during preschool years may also have a beneficial role in the prevention of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and enhancing learning capability and academic performance.

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Correspondence to Meharban Singh.

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Singh, M. Essential fatty acids, DHA and human brain. Indian J Pediatr 72, 239–242 (2005).

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Key words

  • Essential fatty acids
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • DHA
  • Brain growth
  • ADHD