“Before seeing this data, I would have said it was impossible to move young healthy individuals above their cognitive best.” - Prof. Bita Moghaddam, PhD
Multiple studies have addressed the benefits of omega-3 essential fatty acids for support of healthy cognitive function in older adults – but their effects on the working memory of healthy young adults have not been studied until now.
In the first study of its kind, published Oct 3 by PloS One, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh were surprised to find that healthy young adults ages 18-25 can improve their working memory even further by increasing their Omega-3 fatty acid intake.
The Omega-3s, essential for healthy body function, must be derived in the diet from foods such as wild fish (which have eaten Omega-3 rich algae), livestock fed on grass, and the meat & eggs of pasture raised chickens (the reason the Amish are so Omega-3 replete despite eating little fish).
“Before seeing this data, I would have said it was impossible to move young healthy individuals above their cognitive best,” says project investigator Bita Moghaddam, PhD, director of the neuroscience lab at Pitt. “We found that members of this population can enhance their working memory performance even further, despite their already being at the top of their cognitive game.”
Six Month Supplementation Study
Led by Rajesh Narendran, MD, project principal investigator and associate professor of radiology, the Pitt research team sought healthy young men and women from all ethnicities to boost their Omega-3 intake with supplements for six months. They were monitored monthly through phone calls and outpatient procedures.
Before they began taking the supplements, all participants underwent positron emission tomography (PET) imaging, and their blood samples were analyzed. They were then asked to perform a working memory test in which they were shown a series of letters and numbers. The young adults had to keep track of what appeared one, two, and three times prior, known as a simple “n-back test.”
Even at Baseline, Dietary Omega-3s Made a Difference
“What was particularly interesting about the presupplementation n-back test was that it correlated positively with plasma Omega-3,” says Dr. Moghaddam. “This means that the Omega-3s they were getting from their diet already positively correlated with their working memory.”
The participants, who took a ‘prescription grade’ fish oil containing a high percentage of omega-3 (about 840mg DHA/EPA per capsule) were then asked to complete this series of outpatient procedures again. It was during this last stage, during the working memory test and blood sampling, that the improved working memory of this population was revealed.
“So many of the previous studies have been done with the elderly or people with medical conditions, leaving this unique population of young adults unaddressed,” says co-author Matthew Muldoon, MD, MPH. “But what about our highest-functioning periods? Can we help the brain achieve its full potential by adapting our healthy behaviors in our young adult life? We found that we absolutely can.”
Next Question: What Brain Mechanism Is Involved?
Although the effects of Omega-3s on young people were a focus, the Pitt team said they were also hoping to determine the brain mechanism associated with Omega-3 regulation.
• Previous rodent studies suggested that removing Omega-3 from the diet might reduce dopamine storage (the neurotransmitter associated with mood as well as working memory) and decrease density in the striatal vesicular monoamine transporter type 2 (commonly referred to as VMAT2, a protein associated with decision making).
• Therefore, the Pitt researchers posited that increasing VMAT2 protein was the mechanism of action that boosted cognitive performance.
• Unfortunately, PET imaging revealed this was not the case.
“It is really interesting that diets enriched with Omega-3 fatty acid can enhance cognition in highly functional young individuals,” says Dr. Narendran. “Nevertheless, it was a bit disappointing that our imaging studies were unable to clarify the mechanisms by which it enhances working memory.”
Different Mechanisms in Young vs Older Adult Brain?
Ongoing animal modeling studies in the Moghaddam lab indicate that brain mechanisms that are affected by Omega-3s may be differently influenced in adolescents and young adults than they are in older adults.
With this in mind, the Pitt team says they will continue to evaluate the effect of Omega-3 fatty acids in this younger population to find the mechanism that improves cognition.
Source: Based on University of Pittsburgh news release, Oct 25, 2012