Intelligence in young children is not influenced by omega 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found in high concentrations in the brain and accumulate during the spurt in brain growth that occurs between the last trimester of pregnancy and the first year of life. Studies in animals have shown that a lack of DHA during periods of rapid brain growth may lead to problems in brain development but trials of the effect of DHA-fortified formula on brain function in babies have produced conflicting results.

In this study, MRC scientists followed 241 children from birth until they reached four years of age to investigate the relationship between breastfeeding and the use of DHA–fortified formula in infancy and performance in tests of intelligence and other aspects of brain function.

Dr Catharine Gale, from the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre at the University of Southampton, who led the study said:

“This study helps to dispel some of the myths surrounding DHA. We do know that there are clear health benefits to breast feeding but DHA, which is naturally present in breast milk and added into some formulas, is not the secret ingredient that will turn your child into an Einstein. Children’s IQ bears no relation to the levels of DHA they receive as babies. Factors in the home, such as the mother’s intelligence and what mental stimulation children receive, were the most important influences on their IQ.”



Notes to editors:

  • Breastfeeding, the use of docosahexaenoic acid-fortified formulas in infancy and neuropsychological function in childhood – Archives of Disease in Childhood 2010 doi: 10.1136/adc.2009.165050
  • This study is one part of a wider Food Standards Agency project which was commissioned to look at the effect of diet in early childhood on intelligence and physical well being in later life. These results provide a useful addition to the evidence base in this area of research. It does not alter government advice that babies up to 6 months should be exclusively breastfed.
  • Omega three fatty acids, often called long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs), which include DHA, are involved in cell signalling, regulation of gene expression and neuronal growth.
  • The Southampton Women’s Survey (SWS), a study of a population sample of non-pregnant women aged 20 to 34 years in Southampton, is funded by the Medical Research Council and the Dunhill Medical Trust. Children born to SWS were used to provide the data for this study.
  • The four year follow-up of the children was funded by a research contract with the Food Standards Agency.
  • The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health, arts and humanities. The University is home to a number of world-leading research centres, including MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre, the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, and the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute.

Press contact: Kerry Teakle, 020 7670 5302,
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