Omega-3s associated with better executive function in cohort of young children

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

iStock / David Carillet
iStock / David Carillet
Young children with the highest levels of omega-3s in their blood outperformed their peers on a measure of executive function, according to new research conducted in West Africa.

The recent study looked at children aged 2 to 6 years old in Ghana. Researchers from Michigan State University and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana conducted the research on a cohort assembled in a village in the northern part of the country.

Omega-3 blood levels measured

Researchers used a blood spot test to measure the children’s Omega 3 Index that was jointly developed by Prof William Harris, PhD, of the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota. Prof Harris is also president of OmegaQuant, a company that offers the test.

Prof Harris also was listed as an author of the current study. (Dr Clemens von Schacky, MD, of the University of Munich, also helped develop the test.)

The researchers noted that the typical Ghanaian diet is heavy on the carbs and protein. But it is typically low in fat, putting the population at risk of having too few essential fatty acids.

The measurements taken of the children’s Omega-3 Index bore this out. The children averaged  slightly more than 4% on this scale, which is similar to where most North Americans and many Europeans find themselves, though for different reasons. The typical Western diet is rich in fat, but usually of the wrong kinds.

All of the children in the village were invited to participate, of which 307 were selected for the trial. A few children were excluded because of outlier values on measurements of various fatty acids, which could have skewed their results.  

Card test for executive function

After blood sampling, the children all completed a standardized test of executive function that cuts across potential cultural biases and differences.  The test is called the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS), a test in which the children were asked to sort cards based on the shape of the image while suppressing a previously learned set of rules that asked them to group the cards by color. 

The test has a series of steps, or ‘conditions.’ Each step is graded as a pass-fail. Not surprisingly, older children performed better than did the youngest test subjects. And the researchers found that the children with the highest Omega 3 Index levels performed the best overall. 

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Omega-3s associated with better performance on test

“Our data generally support the hypothesis that children with higher whole blood levels of EFAs (LA and ALA) as well as DHA and EPA were more likely to pass the DCCS test, an indicator of executive function,” ​they wrote.

More statistical manipulation of the data eliminated the role of LA (linolenic acid) and ALA in the results.

“[R]egardless of the type of analysis herein, we show that children with higher whole blood levels of DHA, total n-3 and the omega-3 index calculation were more likely to pass the DCCS test. Consistent with this observation, children with higher blood n-3 FA levels were more likely to pass the DCCS test,”​ they concluded.

New research avenues

Prof Harris said the research provided yet another piece to add to the overall research puzzle on omega-3s.  The cardiovascular effects of EPA and DHA have been exhaustively studied, and now the cognitive health and brain developmental benefits are coming into clearer view, too.

What’s intriguing in this study, Harris said, is that the results confirm earlier research that showed a similar association in an older study cohort. So the executive function-boosting effects of omega-3s seem not to be linked to just one life stage. And the relationship appears to be linear, whereas for the cardiovascular health effects, higher levels are thought to be necessary to start to show an effect.

“We look for any hint we can find, and research like this is just a hint, that there is a connection between low omega-3s levels and lesser executive function,”​ Harris told NutraIngredients-USA.

“This matches up with the results of a study we did a number of years ago with deployed soldiers in Iraq. There too, we found that lower Omega 3 Index levels were associated with poorer executive function,” ​Harris said.

“None of this will be definitive unless we can do some huge trial. But this is a sign that we’re on the right track, so let’s keep chasing this,”​ he said.

Source:Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry
“Whole blood n-3 fatty acids are associated with executive function in 2–6-year-old Northern Ghanaian children”
2018 Jul;57:287-293. doi: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2018.03.019.
Authors: Adjepong M, Yakah W, Harris W, et al.

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