DHA and brain health research

despite helmets, concussions happen

Of the three biologically significant* omega-3 fats in our food supply, DHA is most closely associated with brain and nerve cell function.  DHA is known to accumulate in a developing baby’s brain during late pregnancy, and throughout infancy.  DHA is also a key component of our eyes.  Many eye doctors recommend DHA supplements for certain eye conditions.

Because of its importance to the nervous system,  one group of researchers examined the effect of DHA break down products on nervous system cancers.  DHA can be transformed into cell killing metabolites in cancer cells and cell protecting metabolites in healthy nerve cells.  The scientists speculate that, thanks to this dual role, DHA could enhance cancer treatments.

Both the military and sports scientists are interested in DHA’s potential for use in treating concussions and brain injuries.  A study with rats suggests a beneficial effect on recovery from injury.  Different doses of DHA were given to groups of rats for a month.  One placebo group got no DHA.  Then the rats were subjected to head trauma.  A week later, the rats were tested in a maze, to assess memory.  Then brain tissue was examined for signs of cell injury and inflammation.  All of the rats that received DHA had lower levels of chemicals that indicated brain injury, when compared to the placebo group.  The rats that got the highest dose of DHA had significantly lower markers for brain injury and cell death, and better memory performance in the maze test, compared to placebo rats.

DHA clearly has potential benefit for recovery from brain injury, but in this study it was given prior to the injury.  What we don’t know is what effect supplementation would have if given after the injury occurred.  Clearly, a head trauma is going to cause some damage.  Nutrients can’t prevent trauma, but they can perhaps lessen the severity and help the body heal and rebuild more quickly and effectively.  The DHA research has very promising implications for human injuries, but obviously we can’t do this type of study on people.  If it turns out that people taking supplements have better recovery from these injuries, then medical experts will draw conclusions.


  • Alpha linolenic acid (ALA): an 18 carbon chain, found in plant foods like flax, walnuts and canola oil.  Humans can metabolize ALA to the longer carbon chain biologically active omega-3s, but at a very low rate.  ALA has not been linked to specific health benefits.
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA): a 20-carbon chain, found only in animal foods like fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc).  Linked to many health benefits, such as decreased heart disease risk.
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): a 22-carbon chain, found naturally in animal foods.  Can also be manufactured from algae for use in supplements and food fortification.  A key component of brain, eye and nerve cells.
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