Essential fatty acids in visual and brain development

Abstract

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.

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Abbreviations

AA:

arachidonic acid (20∶4n−6)

ABER:

auditory brainstemevoked response

ALA:

α-linolenic acid (18∶3n−3)

CNS:

central nervous system

DHA:

docosahexaenoic acid (22∶6n−3)

EFA:

essential fatty acid

ERG:

electroretinogram

FA:

fatty acids

FPL:

forced-choice preferential looking

GLA:

γ-linolenic acid (18∶3n−6)

LA:

linoleic acid (18∶2n−6)

LC-PUFA:

long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids

MI:

metarhodopsin I

M II:

metarhodopsin II

MDI:

Mental Development Index

PC:

phosphatidylcholine

PPAR:

peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor

PUFA:

polyunsaturated fatty acid

RBC:

red blood cell

RxR:

retinoic acid receptor

TR:

thyroxine receptor

VEP:

visual-evoked potential

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Correspondence to Ricardo Uauy.

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Uauy, R., Hoffman, D.R., Peirano, P. et al. Essential fatty acids in visual and brain development. Lipids 36, 885–895 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11745-001-0798-1

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Keywords

  • Visual Acuity
  • Essential Fatty Acid
  • Term Infant
  • Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid
  • Mental Development Index