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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Feeding the Brain Requires more than One Nutrient

By Michael McBurney

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are required for brain development and function. ScienceDaily summarized mechanistic studies in female frogs and tadpoles demonstrating dietary deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids limit brain development.

In a retrospective analysis of 168 elderly people with mild cognitive impairment who underwent cranial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), brain atrophy rates were highest in those with lower plasma omega-3, DHA and eicosapentaenoic (EPA) concentrations. A statistically significant interaction was found between plasma B vitamin concentrations and omega-3 and EPA but not DHA concentrations. B vitamins weren’t as beneficial when omega-3 and EPA status was low. DHA is the most prevalent long-chain omega-3 fatty acid in the brain.

When it comes to nutrition and health, it is important to think beyond the most limiting nutrient. Using a reductionist approach, researchers often study the effects of removing or adding a single nutrient to the diet.

The brain like other organs/tissues depends upon many nutrients to function properly. DHA, B vitamins, vitamin E, and lutein are all found in brain cells in significant quantities.

A positive relationship exists between DHA or EPA concentrations in red blood cells (RBC) and brain volume. Today’s main citation confirms omega-3 fatty acids help maintain brain structure and function. The most novel insight is that B vitamin impact depends upon omega-3 status. If omega-3s are available for the brain, then B vitamins may help maintain its structure. But without the availability of circulating omega-3 fatty acids, the impact of B vitamins on brain structure is limited.  

This study highlights the importance of measuring nutritional status for multiple nutrients when studying the impact of nutrition on cellular structure and function.

Main Citation

Jereren F, Elshorbagy AK, Oulhaj A, Smith SM, Refsum H, Smith AD. Brain atrophy in cognitively impaired elderly: the importance of long-chain ω-3 fatty acids and B vitamin status in a randomized controlled trial. 2015 Am J Clin Nutr doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.103283

Other Citations

Parberger-Gateau P. Nutrition and brain aging: how can we move ahead? 2014 EJCN doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2014.177

Potter JV, Yaffe K, Robinson JG, Espeland MA, Wallace R, Harris WS. Higher RBC EPA + DHA corresponds with larger total brain and hippocampal volumes. WHIMS-MRI Study. 2014 Neurol doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000080