October 31, 2012
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Working Memory
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
Omega-3 fatty acids have long been known to benefit overall health, including helping with rheumatoid arthritis, depression and lowering triglycerides. Now, the fatty acids have been shown to improve working memory in young adults, according to a new study from University of Pittsburgh scientists.
“Before seeing this data, I would have said it was impossible to move young healthy individuals above their cognitive best,” said study co-author Bita Moghaddam, a professor of neuroscience at the university. “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.”
In their experiments, the researchers first scanned the volunteers using positron emission tomography (PET) imaging and also analyzed their blood samples. The participants were then asked to perform a working memory test involving a series of letters and numbers that they had to identify as they appeared multiple times, also known as a simple “n-back test.”
The participants were then placed on a supplement regime that boosted their Omega-3 intake for six months.
“What was particularly interesting about the pre-supplementation n-back test was that it correlated positively with plasma Omega-3,” said Moghaddam. “This means that the Omega-3s they were getting from their diet already positively correlated with their working memory.”
After completing the six-month regimen, the participants were called back to perform another n-back test, provide blood samples for analysis and undergo another PET scan.
The results of these final n-back tests showed that the volunteer had improved their working memory; however the physical tests were unable to show a mechanism that would explain the test results.
“It is really interesting that diets enriched with Omega-3 fatty acid can enhance cognition in highly functional young individuals,” said study co-author Rajesh Narendarn, an associate professor of radiology. “Nevertheless, it was a bit disappointing that our imaging studies were unable to clarify the mechanisms by which it enhances working memory.”
Researchers said the study is groundbreaking in that it suggested Omega-3 supplements can benefit young, healthy adults, in addition to the older and sicker individuals that are typically instructed to increase their intake of the fatty acids.
“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,” said Matthew Muldoon, project coinvestigator and associate professor of medicine at Pitt. “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.”
According to the scientists, additional studies performed on animal subjects will focus on how brain mechanics are affected by Omega-3 fatty acids in both young and old individuals. These future studies will be based on previous work that connected the levels of dopamine and a protein called VMAT2 to working memory in rodents.