Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
New research from the University of Pittsburgh and the National Institutes of Health has found that a diet deficient in omega-3 fatty acids can have a multi-generational effect on behavior and cognitive ability.
According to their report in Biological Psychiatry, the American research team reached their findings by examining two generations of omega-3 deficient rodents, which exhibited signs of anxiety, hyperactivity and cognitive problems.
“We have always assumed that stress at this age is the main environmental insult that contributes to developing these conditions in at-risk individuals but this study indicates that nutrition is a big factor, too,” said study co-author Bita Moghaddam, professor of neuroscience at Pitt.
“We found that this dietary deficiency can compromise the behavioral health of adolescents, not only because their diet is deficient but because their parents’ diet was deficient as well,” Moghaddam added. “This is of particular concern because adolescence is a very vulnerable time for developing psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia and addiction.”
In the study, the team gave their test rodents a series of behavioral tasks designed to test learning and memory, decision making, anxiety, and hyperactivity for both adults and adolescents. While the tiny test subjects appeared to be in good physical health, they exhibited some behavioral and cognitive deficiencies that were magnified in second-generation subjects with omega-3 deficiencies.
“Our study shows that, while the omega-3 deficiency influences the behavior of both adults and adolescents, the nature of this influence is different between the age groups,” Moghaddam said. “We observed changes in areas of the brain responsible for decision making and habit formation.”
The team is now exploring the possibility of environmental events affecting genetic information that is passed from one generation to the next, also known as epigenetics. They said they are searching for markers for inflammation since an omega-3 deficiency can lead to an increase in omega-6 fats, which are known inflammatory molecules.
“It’s remarkable that a relatively common dietary change can have generational effects,” Moghaddam said. “It indicates that our diet does not merely affect us in the short-term but also can affect our offspring.”
The researchers said they modeled their study on today’s adolescents. The parents of today’s teens were mostly born in the 1960s and 1970s, a period of change in the food production industry. During that time, omega-3-deficient corn and soy oils became prevalent, and livestock started eating less grass and more grains. Since omega-3s are present in grass, grain-fed cattle and other livestock contain less of these essential fatty acids.
While many companies use omega-3s to market their products or supplements, the jury is still out on just how beneficial they might be. A highly-criticized study released last week found a connection between elevated omega-3 levels and prostate cancer.
Some experts have warned against taking fish oil supplements that are designed to boost omega-3 levels. They say that ingesting too much fish oil could unnecessarily expose the body to chemical pollutants. Most doctors simply suggest that healthy individuals incorporate fish regularly into their diet instead of taking supplements.