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Leading Experts Reveal Emerging Research on DHA and the Brain

NEW YORK, NY, April 9, 1997 -- A link between low levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fat essential for normal brain function, and certain behavioral and neurological conditions -- Alzheimer's, depression, memory loss and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) -- was the subject of a conference on nutrition and the brain last week at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center's Nutrition Information Center.

Experts at the conference, "Keeping Your Brain in Shape: New Insights Into DHA," discussed their research into the relationship between low levels of DHA and a number of behavioral and neurological conditions that until now have been thought to be unrelated. In addition to conditions such as Alzheimer's, depression, memory loss and ADHD, the researchers also noted studies showing a link between deficient DHA levels and hostility and aggression.

DHA, the building block of human brain tissue and the primary structural fatty acid in the gray matter of the brain and retina, is critical for mental well-being and visual health throughout life. Sixty percent of the brain is fat, and DHA is the most abundant fat in the brain and retina. But the average American's diet is low in DHA because of a decline in consumption of sources such as animal organ meats and eggs and decreasing levels of DHA in these sources in general.

"Research presented today indicates that DHA may be a critical component of the diet of people of all ages. We now know that DHA is not only important to infants, as has been reported recently in the literature, but is also a key element for adult nutrition. I'm thrilled to be involved in what is really just the beginning stages of promising research on DHA," said Barbara Levine, R.D., Ph.D., director of the Nutrition Information Center.

DHA and Aging

Americans are aging, and a 1996 Yankelovich survey found that one of the biggest fears among Americans 51 years and older is senility (37 percent). New research examining the impact of DHA on various neurological conditions associated with aging offers hope for those concerned with maintaining mental health and acuity as they age.

For example, Ernst Schaefer, M.D., of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, has found that a low level of DHA is a significant risk factor for dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. He has discovered that the body may experience a decreased ability to make DHA as it ages, and is conducting further research to determine the beneficial effects of DHA supplementation on aged patients. "The data I have seen suggest that DHA may be an important therapeutic modality in some age-related conditions, including Alzheimer's and heart disease," Schaefer commented.

Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the Program in Human Nutrition at the University of Michigan, added that cognitive deficits and dementia in the elderly may be associated with inadequate diets. "Current studies on nutrition in the elderly suggest that many conditions associated with aging, such as loss of appetite and forgetfulness, may be avoided if optimal nutrition is maintained through a diet including nutrients like DHA."

DHA and Depression and Hostility

Joseph R. Hibbeln, M.D., of the National Institutes of Health presented research indicating that omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, may reduce the risk of depression. Hibbeln and Norman Salem, Jr., Ph.D., also from the National Institutes of Health, published an article in 1995 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which they associated the documented increase in depression in North America in the last century with the decline in consumption of DHA during the same period. They also noted that while the "many stresses of modern life contribute" to the prevalence of depression, the "relative deficiencies in [omega-3] essential fatty acids [such as DHA] may also intensify vulnerability to depression."

Additionally, Hibbeln and Salem point to lower rates of major depression in societies consuming large amounts of fish, a key dietary source of DHA. In an intensive cross-national collaborative study of rates of depression, North American and European populations showed cumulative rates of depression 10 times greater than a Taiwanese population consuming a diet rich in fish. Among the Japanese, another population that consumes a diet rich in fish, studies have shown a significantly lower prevalence of depression as compared to North America and Europe. Hibbeln's research also indicates that DHA may reduce the risk of Type A measures of hostility. One recent study of violent impulsive prisoners found them to be deficient in DHA and another found that DHA supplementation reduced aggression and hostility in Japanese students.

DHA and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Research conducted by John R. Burgess, Ph.D., of Purdue University's Department of Foods and Nutrition, indicates that deficient levels of DHA are also correlated with behavioral problems in children. Burgess has conducted a study on a population of children in Indiana and found that subjects with ADHD had significantly lower levels of DHA when compared to control subjects.

DHA Supplementation

Recent research has shown that, despite the decline in consumption of DHA, it is possible to elevate levels through DHA dietary supplementation. Bruce J. Holub, Ph.D., of the University of Guelph in Canada, has conducted extensive research on the DHA status of vegetarians. Vegetarians have little or no DHA in their diets. His research team provided vegetarian subjects with a vegetable-source DHA supplement over a 42-day period which significantly increased their DHA intake and blood levels.

"Keeping Your Brain In Shape: New Insights Into DHA" was made possible by an educational grant from Martek Biosciences Corporation, a Maryland-based company that manufactures NeurominsTM, the world's only commercially available, single-nutrient, vegetable source of DHA.