Food for thought: could there be a new role for DHA in brain health?

By:  Talking Nutrition Editors



  • As the proportion of older adults in the global population continues to increase, there is a growing need to address key challenges associated with aging, including declining brain health and cognitive function.
  • Exciting data from a new study have demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acids are critical for myelination, the process of wrapping nerve fibers with a fatty layer called myelin. Since myelination deteriorates with age, the research suggests that omega-3s – especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – could help to mitigate the damaging effects linked to the loss of myelin sheaths as we age.
  • Read on to learn more about the role of nutrition in brain health, particularly in older adults, and what these recent scientific findings could mean for future innovation in the omega-3 and brain health arena.  

 Adapting to an aging world

The number of elderly people in the total global population is higher than ever before, with the percentage of those aged 60 years and older expected to almost double from 12% in 2015 to 22% by the year 2050.2 Most countries worldwide now face major challenges to prepare their health and social systems for the demands associated with an aging demographic. This includes delivering solutions that will support heart health, brain health, immunity and more to champion quality of life and better health in senior years. 

Brain health, in particular, is a key priority for the elderly. Many adults want to maintain, or even improve, their brain health and mental agility as they age. However, the brain naturally changes with age, negatively affecting memory, learning and other cognitive functions. 3 So, what if there was a way to support the aging brain with a simple nutritional solution? 

Nourishing the mind with nutritional supplements 

Our organs require essential fats, vitamins and minerals, as well as proteins and carbohydrates, to function at their best. This is especially true for the most complex organ in the body – the brain – where the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ rings especially true. In particular, omega-3 fatty acids, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential nutrients that are known to have many positive effects on brain health and general wellbeing. DHA is crucial across the lifespan, starting in infancy, with studies indicating maternal DHA intake can support neuron development in the brain of unborn babies during pregnancy. 4,5 Furthermore, the brain of a growing child requires an adequate amount of DHA for healthy cognitive development. 6

Studies in adults demonstrate that omega-3 nutrition is just as important. Research shows that a nourishing diet rich in nutritional lipids supports brain health in adulthood by promoting neuron formation and helping to support cognitive abilities, attention, memory and mood. 7,8,9 DHA is also demonstrated to protect neurons in the brain by limiting inflammation following brain injury, promoting the formation of new neurons and protecting microglia cells – important cells for brain function – from cell death.6 They are even shown to play a positive role in sleep quality and depression. 10,11 But what about the potential of omega-3 fatty acids to support the aging brain?

New paper demonstrates the promising potential of DHA in the aging brain

Findings from a new study shed light on the promising potential of using omega-3s to mitigate the damaging effects of aging on the brain. Researchers investigated the role of Mfsd2a, an important transporter that facilitates DHA uptake in the brain, in the regulation of oligodendrocytes, cells responsible for producing myelin.1 Myelin forms an insulating sheath around nerve cells in the brain, facilitating rapid communication as well as normal motor and sensory functions and cognition. The natural aging process causes myelin sheaths to degenerate, leading to a decline of mental and physical abilities in the elderly population. 

In the study, the scientists removed Mfsd2a from precursor cells that mature into oligodendrocytes. The results were similar to robbing a worker of their tools; the oligodendrocytes could no longer perform their role.1 Without this crucial transporter, DHA was unable to enter the brain and myelination was significantly reduced.1 

These noteworthy findings suggest that DHA may be important for oligodendrocyte development, and thus myelination of the nerve cells that help to power the brain. This creates potential opportunities for the development of omega-3 dietary supplements that may help to retain myelin in the aging brain. The next step? Pre-clinical research to determine if omega-3 fatty acids have the potential to re-myelinate already damaged axons in the brain. 

Harness the power of omega-3 fatty acids with dsm-firmenich

At dsm-firmenich, we are your end-to-end partner for the development of purpose-led nutrition solutions that support the health of the aging population. Our broad portfolio of omega-3 products includes life’s®OMEGA – the first and only commercially available plant-based omega-3 that delivers the benefits of EPA and DHA in a single, quality source. However, we are more than an ingredient supplier. 

dsm-firmenich is a pioneer in the dietary supplement space, ready to deliver the customized solutions and expert services you need to bring innovative nutritional products to market faster. We’re also passionate about remaining at the forefront of exciting developments in the brain health arena – always staying one step ahead to empower the minds of consumers, old and young, globally. 

Want to discover how we can co-create safe, reliable and effective omega-3 nutritional solutions?


Published on

05 July 2023


6 min read

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  1. Sengottuvel V, Hota M, Oh J, Galam DL, Wong BH, Wenk MR, Ghosh S, Torta F, Silver DL. Deficiency in the omega-3 lysolipid transporter Mfsd2a leads to aberrant oligodendrocyte lineage development and hypomyelination. J Clin Invest. 2023 Apr 27:e164118.
  2. Ageing and health, World Health Organization. Available at: Ageing and health (
  3. Brain health, World Health Organization. Available at: Brain health (
  4. Ghazale, H., Ramadan, N., Mantash, S., Zibara, K., El-Sitt, S., Darwish, H., et al. 2018. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) enhances the therapeutic potential of neonatal neural stem cell transplantation post-traumatic brain injury. Behav. Brain Res. 340:1–13. 
  5. Lauritzen, L., Brambilla, P., Mazzocchi, A., Harsløf, L. B., Ciappolino, V., Agostoni, C. 2016. DHA effects in brain development and function. Nutrients 8:6. 
  6. Ahmad F, Hasan H, Abdelhady S, Fakih W, Osman N, Shaito A and Kobeissy F (2021) Healthy Meal, Happy Brain: How Diet Affects Brain Functioning. Front. Young Minds. 9:578214. 
  7. Zainuddin, M. S., and Thuret, S. 2012. Nutrition, adult hippocampal neurogenesis and mental health. Br. Med. Bull. 103:89–114
  8. K. Yurko-Mauro, D. Alexander and M. van Elswyk, ‘Docosahexaenoic acid and adult memory: a systematic review and meta-analysis’, PLoS One, vol. 10, no. 3, 2015.
  9. Rathod et al. Novel insights into the effect of vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids on brain function. Journal of Biomedical Science, 23, 17, 2016.
  10. Patan MJ, Kennedy DO, Husberg C, Hustvedt SO, Calder PC, Middleton B, Khan J, Forster J, Jackson PA. Differential Effects of DHA- and EPA-Rich Oils on Sleep in Healthy Young Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2021 Jan 16;13(1):248.
  11. B. Hallahan et al., ‘Efficacy of omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids in the treatment of depression’, B J Psych, vol. 209, no. 3, 2016, p. 192-201
  12. Omega-3 fatty acid lipid findings could be a game-changer in the aging brain. By Danielle Masterson. May 2023. Nutra Ingredients. Available at: Omega-3 fatty acid lipid findings could be a game-changer in the aging brain (

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