Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine have found evidence suggesting that brain changes found in adults with risk-related genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia were similar to the brain changes in infants with the same gene variants.
The study, which was published January 3 in Cerebral Cortex, analyzed data from 272 infants who had an MRI shortly after birth. The DNA of each infant was screened for 10 common variations in seven genes associated with disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, anxiety disorders and depression.
The researchers pointed out that the similarities between the adult brains and the infant brains were not found for every variation in every gene that was examined. But they indicated that this discovery could lead to more research focused on preventing the onset of disease through very early intervention in at-risk individuals. 1
It’s too early to know exactly what a pregnant mother can do to prevent gene variants such as these, but one place to start for the support of healthy brain development in children might be with the supplementation of Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This long-chain omega-3 fatty acid is sometimes referred to as “brain food” for good reason. It has a huge impact on the developing brain.
It is believed that during mid-to-late gestation, DHA plays an important role in fetal and infant brain development, including neurocognitive and neuromotor functions. Deficits in several such functions have been associated with schizophrenia. 2
A 2006 study done at Maastricht University in The Netherlands and published in Science Direct measured the relationship between DHA status at birth and behavioral problems at seven years of age.
The aim of the study was to examine the relationship between long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acid status at birth and the later development of behavior problems. In a sample of 393 children, higher levels of DHA at birth were associated with lower levels of problem behavior at seven years old.
There was a definite association between later behavior problems in the children who were fed artificial formula as infants, in comparison to the children who were breastfed. The researchers concluded that the DHA status of mothers during the period around birth (especially the period beginning five months before and one month after birth) might have long-term behavioral consequences.3
An earlier study showed that the IQ scores of children of women who took a DHA supplement during pregnancy and lactation were higher in comparison to the scores of children whose mother’s did not take DHA. 4
How to supplement with DHA?
DHA is found mainly in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. Eggs and organ meats have a small amount of DHA in them. DHA is also made from another fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in walnuts, flax seed and canola oil.
There is no standard or fixed therapeutic dosage (the optimal amount needed for a healthy, disease-free condition) of omega 3 fatty acids.
Consult your health practitioner for advice on determining the exact dosage of DHA your body requires. It is especially important for pregnant women to consult with your doctor.
1. Rebecca C. Knickmeyer, Jiaping Wang, Hongtu Zhu, Xiujuan Geng, Sandra Woolson, Robert M. Hamer, Thomas Konneker, Weili Lin, Martin Styner, and John H. Gilmore. Common Variants in Psychiatric Risk Genes Predict Brain Structure at Birth. Cereb. Cortex, January 2, 2013 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhs401
2. Harper KN, Hibbeln JR, Deckelbaum R, Quesenberry CP Jr, Schaefer CA, Brown AS. Maternal serum docosahexaenoic acid and schizophrenia spectrum disorders in adult offspring. Schizophr Res. 2011 May;128(1-3):30-6. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2011.01.009. Epub 2011 Feb 15. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21324652
3. Krabbendam L, Bakker E, Hornstra G, van Os J. Relationship between DHA status at birth and child problem behaviour at 7 years of age. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2007 Jan;76(1):29-34. Epub 2006 Oct 30. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed&cmd=DetailsSearch&ter…
4. Helland IB, Smith L, Saarem K, Saugstad OD, Drevon CA. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children’s IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics. 2003 Jan;111(1):e39-44. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12509593