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What is the Connection Between the Brain and DHA?

By Amanda Piontek
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The human brain is comprised of nearly 60 percent fat, making it the fattiest organ in the human body. Brain fats are from a specialized group known as essential fatty acids. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is what is known as a long chain polyunsaturated essential fatty acid, and it is the main structural fat of the human brain.

Essential fatty acids are required for the maintenance of optimal brain health. These fatty acids cannot be supplied independently or created by the human body; rather, they must be consumed through diet. The two main branches of essential fatty acids are linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. The human body uses alpha-linolenic acid to manufacture the polyunsaturated fatty acid DHA.

The human brain and DHA go hand in hand, particularly when it comes to infant development. Newborn babies are supplied DHA through breast milk. DHA accumulates in the brain of breastfed babies, providing them with advantages in intelligence quotient (IQ), motor development and hand-eye coordination. In 2001, manufacturers began adding synthetic DHA to infant formula in an attempt to provide formula-fed infants with similar advantages.

Pregnancy, particularly during the third trimester, is another time when there is a connection between the brain and DHA. The fetal brain undergoes a growth spurt, pulling DHA from maternal stores. DHA accumulates in the fetus, and at birth, the newborn brain is 70 percent of its adult size. DHA supplements during pregnancy, if suggested or approved by the woman's doctor, can help supply the additional DHA needed during this crucial period.

It is important that one does not rely solely on the conversion of alpha-linolenic acid when it comes to the brain and DHA. The omega-3 fatty acid DHA also can be consumed directly through the diet. Cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, herring, tuna and sardines are excellent sources of dietary DHA. Vegetarians can incorporate plant-based DHA sources such as walnuts, flax seeds and cauliflower into their diets.

There is a critical relationship between the brain and DHA. DHA supports brain health in adults as well as infants and children. Maintaining optimal brain nutrition through adequate intake of DHA boosts memory and concentration, and it might play an important role in preventing degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

DHA tablets are yet another way to ensure that the body is receiving a proper amount of these so-called "brain vitamins." Fish oil supplements are rich in omega-3s and can help the body reach recommended daily guidelines for this essential fatty acid. Vegetarian supplements are also available for those who don't want to consume omega-3s from a fish source.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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