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Omega-3 fatty acids increase brain volume: while reversing many aspects of neurologic aging.

The cardioprotective power of omega-3 fatty acids has been thoroughly documented in clinical literature. Less well known is their paramount role in optimizing many facets of brain function, from depression, cognition, and memory to mental health.

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Recent research has opened up a new horizon in our understanding of omega-3s' profound ability to halt age-related decline and pathology, shattering the long-held medical belief that brain shrinkage and nerve cell death is progressive and irreversible. Omega-3s have been shown to possess antidepressant and neuroprotective properties. One recent landmark study found that aging humans who consumed more omega-3s had increased gray matter brain volume and that most new tissue development was observed in the part of the brain associated with happiness. (1)

Similar findings appeared in the prestigious journal Lancet. (2) In one of the largest studies of its kind, scientists analyzing the diets of 12,000 pregnant women found that children of those who consumed the least omega-3 were 48% more likely to score in the lowest quartile on IQ tests.

In this article, the latest research on these essential fatty acids' importance to the growth, development, and function of the human brain is detailed. You will learn about their intrinsic power to preserve cognition and memory and reverse age-related loss of brain function. You will also discover exciting findings on their unique capacity to combat multiple forms of mental illness, neuropsychiatric disorders, and aberrant behavior, from Alzheimer's disease and aggression to bipolar disorder and depression.

KEY NUTRIENT FROM THE CRADLE TO THE GRAVE

Approximately 8% of the brain's weight is comprised of omega-3 fatty acids (3)--the building block for an estimated 100 billion neurons. (4) Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) play a host of vital roles in neuronal structure and function, protecting them from oxidative damage, inflammation, and the cumulative destruction inflicted by other chronic insults. (5), (6)

Embedded in the omega-3-rich neuronal membrane are numerous proteins and complex molecules required for electrochemical transmission and signal reception. (4) Scientists have recently shown that the precise balance of fatty acids in brain cells helps determine whether a given nerve cell will be protected against injury or inflammation, or whether it will instead succumb to the injury. (7)

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Omega-3s accumulate in the human brain during fetal development. The amount of the omega-3 DHA has been closely tied to intelligence and cognitive performance in infancy and childhood. (8) But the omega-3 content of brain cell membranes involved in essential memory-processing areas diminishes with advancing age and in certain chronic brain disorders. (9)

These findings have led scientists to suspect a role for omega-3 deterioration in development of typical age-related cognitive decline such as that seen in Alzheimer's and chronic disease. (10)

Early developmental deficits in brain content of omega-3s have been associated with poor brain maturation and neurocognitive dysfunction. (11) These are manifested especially in the area of attention, increasing the risk for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other behavioral disturbances. (8) Later in life, declining levels of DHA and EPA may contribute to development of aggression, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, and a variety of other mental health and even criminal conditions. (12-17) Scientists are having great success at reversing many of the fundamental age-related decreases in brain function correlated with omega-3 deficiency. (10) ADHD and related conditions can be prevented or mitigated by supplementing infants and nursing mothers with DHA. (8), (18) Young rats supplemented with DHA show increased plasticity, or flexibility of function, in their developing brain cells, with highly invigorated development of synapses, the electrochemical junctions where nerve signals are relayed. (9) In aged rats, omega-3 supplementation reverses age-related neuronal changes and maintains learning and memory performance that arise from powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. (9)

A remarkable animal study has just revealed that omega-3 fatty acids halt the age-related loss of brain cell receptors vital to memory production, and show potential for increasing neuronal growth. (19)

A NATURAL CRIME FIGHTER?

Recent findings suggest that some criminal and aggressive behaviors are closely correlated with low serum omega-3 levels, which are linked to lower levels of altruism, honesty, and self-discipline. (13) These effects may be related to alterations in serotonin turnover, which controls impulsivity and aggression-hostility behaviors. (13)

There's solid data indicating that optimal omega-3 intake at all ages is a promising avenue for subduing aggression and hostility. (20), (21) For example, 1.5 grams of omega-3 supplementation (containing 840 mg EPA and 700 mg of DHA) in autistic children with severe tantrums, aggression, or self-injurious behavior produced significant improvements compared with placebo, without adverse effects. (22) And stressed but otherwise healthy volunteers given 1,500 mg/day of DHA reported a significantly improved rate of stress reduction compared to a no-treatment group, suggesting an adaptogenic role for omega-3s (adaptogens help the body respond to imposed stress in a variety of ways). (23)

In a group of substance abusers, supplementation with 2,225 mg EPA and 500 mg DHA for 3 months produced significant decreases in anger and anxiety scores compared to placebo recipients. (16) Amazingly, the two nutrients complemented each other, with EPA increases being most robustly associated with lowered anxiety scores, and DHA increases with lowered anger scores. Similarly, in young adult prison inmates, multi-supplements featuring omega-3s produced significant reductions in antisocial, violent, aggressive, and transgressive (rule-breaking) behavior. (24), (25)

MORE POTENT THAN PROZAC[R]

Large epidemiological studies repeatedly demonstrate that depressed people have significantly reduced levels of DHA and EPA in red blood cell membranes or serum. (26), (27) One autopsy study revealed lower amount of omega-3s in the brains of those who'd suffered depression compared to those who did not. (28) Low omega-3 status is frequently found in people who have attempted or committed suicide. (29-31) In fact, seasonal variations in blood levels of omega-3s have been shown to closely parallel similar variations in violent suicide deaths. (7) Patients with deficient omega-3 status also had reduced expression of the vital transporter complex responsible for moving serotonin at nerve cell junctions. (7)

People who get more omega-3s actually have bigger, more functional brains.

In fact, the serotonin-related benefits of omega-3 supplementation are powerful enough to stand up to a head-to-head comparison with fluoxetine (Prozac[R]), a common and highly effective member of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) category of modern antidepressants. (32) In that study, 50% of subjects responded well to fluoxetine alone, 56% to EPA supplementation (1,000 mg), and an impressive 81% in people who took both forms of treatment. (32)

At doses above 2,000 mg, results are uniformly dramatic. Double-blind, placebo-controlled trials are revealing substantial superiority of omega-3 therapy to placebo, using standard depression assessment scales. (33) Numerous other studies are further validating these dramatic effects on depression in a host of other contexts: depressive symptoms were alleviated in patients with Parkinson's disease, and in pregnant women with major depressive disorder. (34), (35) A particularly powerful effect was shown in middle-aged women experiencing psychological distress and depressive symptoms during the menopausal transition. (36) In one Israeli study, omega-3 supplementation in children with major depression provided significant improvement across all indices of measurement. (37)

References

(1.) Conklin SM, Gianaros PJ, Brown SM, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated positively with corticolimbic gray matter volume in healthy adults. Neurosci Lett. 2007 Jun 29;421(3):209-12.

(2.) Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Steer C, et al. Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. Lancet. 2007 Feb 17;369(9561):578-85.

(3.) O'Brien JS, Sampson EL. Lipid composition of the normal human brain: gray matter, white matter, and myelin. J Lipid Res. 1965 Oct;6(4):537-44.

(4.) Chang CY, Ke DS, Chen JY. Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan. 2009 Dec;18(4):231-41.

(5.) Robinson JG, Ijioma N, Harris W. Omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive function in women. Womens Health (Lond Engl). 2010 Jan;6(1):119-34.

(6.) Eckert GP, Franke C, Noldner M, et al. Plant derived omega-3-fatty acids protect mitochondrial function in the brain. Pharmacol Res. 2010 Mar;61(3):234-41.

(7.) De Vriese SR, Christophe AB, Maes M. In humans, the seasonal variation in poly-unsaturated fatty acids is related to the seasonal variation in violent suicide and serotonergic markers of violent suicide. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2004 Jul;71(1):13-8.

(8.) McNamara RK, Carlson SE. Role of omega-3 fatty acids in brain development and function: potential implications for the pathogenesis and prevention of psychopathology. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2006 Oct-Nov;75(4-5):329-49.

(9.) Su HM. Mechanisms of n-3 fatty acid-mediated development and maintenance of learning memory performance. J Nutr Biochem. 2010 May;21(5):364-73.

(10.) Dyall SC, Michael GJ, Whelpton R, Scott AG, Michael-Titus AT. Dietary enrichment with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids reverses age-related decreases in the GluR2 and NR2B glutamate receptor subunits in rat forebrain. Neurobiol Aging. 2007 Mar;28(3):424-39.

(11.) Innis SM. Dietary omega 3 fatty acids and the developing brain. Brain Res. 2008 Oct 27;1237:35-43.

(12.) Liperoti R, Landi F, Fusco O, Bernabei R, Onder G. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and depression: a review of the evidence. Curr Pharm Des. 2009;15(36):4165-72.

(13.) Mincke E, Cosyns P, Christophe AB, De Vriese S, Maes M. Lower omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and lower docosahexaenoic acid in men with pedophilia. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2006 Dec;27(6):719-23.

(14.) Fedorova I, Salem N, Jr. Omega-3 fatty acids and rodent behavior. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2006 Oct-Nov;75(4-5):271-89.

(15.) Morley JE. Nutrition and the brain. Clin Geriatr Med. 2010 Feb;26(1):89-98.

(16.) Buydens-Branchey L, Branchey M, Hibbeln JR. Associations between increases in plasma n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids following supplementation and decreases in anger and anxiety in substance abusers. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2008 Feb 15;32(2):568-75.

(17.) Amminger GP, Schafer MR, Papageorgiou K, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for indicated prevention of psychotic disorders: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010 Feb;67(2):146-54.

(18.) Aben A, Danckaerts M. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the treatment of children and adolescents with ADHD. Tijdschr Psychiatr. 2010;52(2):89-97.

(19.) Dyall SC, Michael GJ, Michael-Titus AT. Omega-3 fatty acids reverse age-related decreases in nuclear receptors and increase neurogenesis in old rats. J Neurosci Res. 2010 Mar 24.

(20.) Hibbeln JR, Ferguson TA, Blasbalg TL. Omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies in neurodevelopment, aggression and autonomic dysregulation: opportunities for intervention. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2006 Apr;18(2):107-18.

(21.) Kidd PM. Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behavior, and mood: clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids. Altern Med Rev. 2007 Sep;12(3):207-27.

(22.) Amminger GP, Berger GE, Schafer MR, Klier C, Friedrich MH, Feucht M. Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in children with autism: a double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Feb 15;61(4):551-3.

(23.) Bradbury J, Myers SP, Oliver C. An adaptogenic role for omega-3 fatty acids in stress; a randomised placebo controlled double blind intervention study (pilot). Nutr J. 2004 Nov 28;3:20.

(24.) Gesch CB, Hammond SM, Hampson SE, Eves A, Crowder MJ. Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behaviour of young adult prisoners. Randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry. 2002 Jul;181:22-8.

(25.) Zaalberg A, Nijman H, Bulten E, Stroosma L, van der Staak C. Effects of nutritional supplements on aggression, rule-breaking, and psychopathology among young adult prisoners. Aggress Behav. 2010 Mar;36(2):117-26.

(26.) Peet M, Murphy B, Shay J, Horrobin D. Depletion of omega-3 fatty acid levels in red blood cell membranes of depressive patients. Biol Psychiatry. 1998 Mar 1;43(5):315-9.

(27.) Maes M, Christophe A, Delanghe J, Altamura C, Neels H, Meltzer HY. Lowered omega3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in serum phospholipids and cholesteryl esters of depressed patients. Psychiatry Res. 1999 Mar 22;85(3):275-91.

(28.) McNamara RK, Hahn CG, Jandacek R, et al. Selective deficits in the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid in the postmortem orbitofrontal cortex of patients with major depressive disorder. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Jul 1;62(1):17-24.

(29.) Brunner J, Parhofer KG, Schwandt P, Bronisch T. Cholesterol, essential fatty acids, and suicide. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2002 Jan;35(1):1-5.

(30.) Huan M, Hamazaki K, Sun Y, et al. Suicide attempt and n-3 fatty acid levels in red blood cells: a case control study in China. Biol Psychiatry. 2004 Oct 1;56(7):490-6.

(31.) Sublette ME, Hibbeln JR, Galfalvy H, Oquendo MA, Mann JJ. Omega-3 polyunsaturated essential fatty acid status as a predictor of future suicide risk. Am J Psychiatry. 2006 Jun;163(6):1100-2.

(32.) Jazayeri S, Tehrani-Doost M, Keshavarz SA, et al. Comparison of therapeutic effects of omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid and fluoxetine, separately and in combination, in major depressive disorder. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2008 Mar;42(3):192-8.

(33.) Su KP, Huang SY, Chiu CC, Shen WW. Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder. A preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2003 Aug;13(4):267-71.

(34.) da Silva TM, Munhoz RP, Alvarez C, et al. Depression in Parkinson's disease: a double-blind, randomized, placebocontrolled pilot study of omega-3 fatty-acid supplementation. J Affect Disord. 2008 Dec;111(2-3):351-9.

(35.) Su KP, Huang SY, Chiu TH, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids for major depressive disorder during pregnancy: results from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Apr;69(4):644-51.

(36.) Lucas M, Asselin G, Merette C, Poulin MJ, Dodin S. Ethyl-eicosapentaenoic acid for the treatment of psychological distress and depressive symptoms in middle-aged women: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Feb;89(2):641-51.

(37.) Nemets H, Nemets B, Apter A, Bracha Z, Belmaker RH. Omega-3 treatment of childhood depression: a controlled, double-blind pilot study. Am J Psychiatry. 2006 Jun;163(6):1098-100.

RELATED ARTICLE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: REVERSE BRAIN AGING

* Lipids comprise a significant portion of the brain. Of these lipids, omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important.

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* Omega-3 fatty acids exert profound anti-aging effects on brain structure and function, from cognition and memory to mental health and Alzheimer's prevention.

* They have recently been associated with increased volume of the brain's gray matter, especially in those regions associated with happiness, and they boost intelligence through enhanced function from birth onwards.

* They support brain cell structure, increase the production of vital neurotransmitters, and blunt oxidative and inflammatory damage.

* Ranges of 1,000-3,000 mg of EPA and 1,000-1,500 mg of DHA have been shown to yield significant improvements in symptoms of depression, aggression, and other mental disorders, as well as protection against early cognitive decline and even early Alzheimer's disease.

By Julius Goepp, MD
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Title Annotation:ON THE COVER
Author:Goepp, Julius
Publication:Life Extension
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Date:Aug 1, 2010
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