Effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on human brain morphology and function: What is the evidence?

Bos, Dienke J., van Montfort, Simone J T, Oranje, Bob, Durston, Sarah, Smeets, Paul A M


European Neuropsychopharmacology 26 (3), p. 546–561


Public opinion and media coverage suggest that there are benefits of long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (LC-PUFA) intake on brain functioning. However, it is an open question whether this is indeed the case. Therefore, we reviewed the evidence for effects of ω-3 LC-PUFA on human brain morphology and function. We included studies on (1) naturalistic long-term ω-3 LC-PUFA intake during life (2) the effects of short-term ω-3 LC-PUFA supplementation in healthy subjects and (3) the effects of ω-3 LC-PUFA supplementation as alternative or add-on treatment for psychiatric or neurological disorders. To date, 24 studies have been published on the effect of ω-3 LC-PUFA on brain function and structure. Findings from naturalistic studies and clinical trials in healthy individuals indicate that ω-3 LC-PUFA intake may be associated with increased functional activation of the prefrontal cortex in children, and greater gray matter volume and white matter integrity during aging. However, most naturalistic studies were cross-sectional or did not find any effect on cognition. As such, it is hard to estimate the magnitude of any beneficial effects. Furthermore, there is only limited evidence to support that ω-3 LC-PUFA supplementation is beneficial in brain disorders, such as Alzheimer's Disease, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder and schizophrenia. Overall, the literature suggests that sensitivity to supplementation may vary over development, and as a consequence of brain disorders. The biological mechanisms underlying any (beneficial) effects ω-3 LC-PUFAs on the brain are currently unknown and need to be investigated.