Impact of maternal fatty acid nutrition in early development – a basic science and clinical approach

There is a growing appreciation that the n-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are important for brain development and influence cognitive, behavioural and visual function. The richest source of DHA is found in fatty fish, leading to considerable interest in the importance of fish consumption during pregnancy. Important new data shows that about 40 per cent of British Columbian women have DHA intakes below projected requirements for fetal development, and that DHA levels in BC women’s breast milk are among the lowest in the world. During early human development, DHA is delivered from mother to baby by placental transfer (before birth) and via breast milk (after birth). Maternal intake of DHA affects the supply of DHA available to the developing fetus and infant. Currently, little is known about how DHA is transferred from mother to infant before birth, or what dietary DHA intake best supports human growth and development, and the secretion of DHA in human milk. Elizabeth Novak is conducting clinical projects to pinpoint how DHA is transported from mother to baby and to determine how much dietary DHA a mother must consume to achieve optimal levels of DHA in her baby both before and after birth. She is conducting a randomized controlled trial that tests supplementation with DHA during pregnancy. This will allow her to track maternal dietary DHA intake, blood levels of DHA, and newborn and infant blood levels of DHA and biomarkers. Novak’s studies on human milk will also involve collecting and analyzing human milk. She is also studying animal models to address questions regarding the importance of DHA in the developing fetal and neonatal liver. Ultimately, this research will result in dietary recommendations for n-3 fatty acids that support optimal development in babies.