Early Nutrition, Language and Cognitive Development

Large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are essential to support fetal and infant brain development. Omega-3 fatty acids accumulate in the central nervous system in the developing infant brain during and after pregnancy, although the brain appears to be particularly sensitive to dietary deficiencies of important essential fatty acids during intrauterine development. Before birth, essential fatty acids (those fatty acids which humans cannot form and which must be obtained from the diet) are transferred through the placenta, and after birth, through breast milk. The intake of omega-3 fatty acids in western diets is low with research demonstrating that many women following typical western diets likely have lower intakes than what is required by the developing infant before birth. Current guidelines for intake of Omega-3 fatty acids are directed at reducing the risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, and do not consider the needs of pregnant and lactating women, or the important role of omega-3 fatty acids in brain development and function. Dr. Orly Lipka is investigating whether an increase in omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy reduced the risk of poor neurodevelopmental outcome in infants. Her research involves the use of sensitive tests of early language and problem solving ability to assess subtle delays in development secondary to nutritional deficiency during prenatal development. An important part of this work is also following up to assess the later effects in early childhood. The findings should lead to better understanding of the importance of omega-3 fatty acids with respect to cognitive and behavioral development.