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Scientists found that monkeys fed a diet high in omega-3s had better connections in certain brain networks. They noted these connections are similar to those found in people, including networks involved in thinking and attention. The study authors said their findings offer more evidence that omega-3 fatty acids are important for healthy brain development.
Experts note, however, that research with animals often fails to provide similar results in humans.
"The data shows the benefits in how the monkeys' brains organize over their lifetime if in the setting of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids," study senior author Damien Fair, an assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, said in a university news release.
"The data also shows in detail how similar the networks in a monkey brain are to networks in a human brain, but only in the context of a diet rich in omega-3-fatty acids," Fair added.
Omega-3 fatty acids are nutrients the body needs that are found in specific foods, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and other fatty fish. The study authors focused on one omega-3 fatty acid, known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which has already been shown to be important for infant eye development.
The study, published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, involved older monkeys that were fed either a diet high in omega-3s or low in omega-3s for their entire lives.
Using brain scans, the researchers found the monkeys that lived on a diet rich in omega-3s had well-connected and organized nerve cell networks. These animals also had better connections in brain networks that are similar to certain brain networks found in healthy people, including those involved in thinking, the study authors explained in the news release.
"For example, we could see activity and connections within areas of the macaque brain that are important in the human brain for attention," noted Fair.
Meanwhile, the monkeys that ate a diet low in omega-3s had significantly more limited brain networking.
Looking ahead, the researchers plan to investigate if monkeys with problems in certain brain networks have behavioral patterns that are similar to those of people with certain disorders, such as autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They also hope to study how various diets affect the animals over the course of their lifetimes.
"It would be important to see how a diet high in omega-3s might affect brain development early on in their lives, and across their lifespan," Fair said.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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SOURCE: Oregon Health & Science University, news release, Feb. 5, 2014