Mothers who regularly ate a functional food containing an Omega 3 fatty acid during pregnancy gave birth to infants with better problem-solving abilities as measured at nine months of age, according to a new UConn study to be published in the June issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The study is the first to report on problem-solving abilities during the first year of life tied to prenatal dietary intake of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an Omega 3 fatty acid found in particularly high concentrations in specific regions of the brain, including the cerebral cortex, synapses, and retinal rod photoreceptors.
A functional food is any foodstuff that is enhanced by additives and marketed as beneficial to health.
DHA consumption is especially important during pregnancy.
The fatty acid accumulates at a high rate during the third trimester, as the majority of brain cells are being formed for an entire lifetime, says Michelle Judge, a post-doctoral fellow in UConn’s School of Nursing and Department of Nutritional Sciences who is the lead author of the study.
Yet in the United States and Canada, DHA intake during pregnancy is far below the current generally accepted level of 300 milligrams per day, which raises concern for infant neurodevelopment.
That concern is compounded by the fact that fetal conversion of a more commonly consumed Omega 3 fatty acid – a-linolenic acid (LNA) – to DHA is extremely limited, Judge says.
“Our research confirms that it is extremely important for expectant mothers to regularly consume a direct source of DHA, ideally those cold water marine fish that are considered safe for pregnant women or a DHA-enhanced functional food,” she says.
“Our finding of better problem-solving abilities in the group of infants whose mothers consumed a prenatal DHA supplement supports the idea that DHA plays an important role in the development of attention required for infant goal-directed behavior,” Judge adds, “and suggests that DHA consumption during gestation is particularly important for infant cognitive development.”
The double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial involved 29 pregnant women ages 18 to 35, who were recruited through the University and through Hartford Hospital at less than 20 weeks’ gestation.
The women were divided into two groups: One group received cereal bars enhanced with 300 milligrams of DHA, while the other group received cereal bars without DHA.
The women consumed an average of five cereal bars a week, beginning at 24 weeks of gestation, through delivery.
The mean dietary DHA intake for the entire group was 99 milligrams per day. The mean DHA intake for mothers in the intervention group, which included regular dietary intake of DHA and the DHA functional food, was considerably higher: 313 milligrams per day.
A two-step, means-end problem-solving test was presented to all the infants in their own homes at nine months of age, to evaluate their ability to execute a series of steps to retrieve a toy.
The steps involved pulling a covered toy within reach and uncovering the toy. The test was presented to the infants five times, and all five performances were scored.
The UConn researchers found a statistically significant difference between the problem solving abilities of the two groups, with the infants whose mothers had consumed a DHA functional food during pregnancy faring better.
These findings support previously published studies that have established links between prenatal DHA consumption and/or infant DHA consumption and improved attention and eye-hand coordination in toddlers and higher IQ later in childhood, Judge says.
Further studies are needed to establish recommended daily allowances of DHA for pregnant women, she adds.
Former UConn nutritional sciences professor Carol Lammi-Keefe, who is now at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, secured funding for this project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and served as its principal investigator.
Additional support for the study came from Nestec Ltd., the UConn Research Foundation, the National Fisheries Institute, and the American Dietetic Association Foundation.