The role of omega-3 fatty acids in neuronal growth

Fish has long been regarded as 'brain food'; there is a lucrative market selling dietary supplements of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. Large scale population studies give increasing weight to these claims and suggest that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) do indeed have beneficial effects on brain function. The nervous system has a much higher concentration of PUFAs than any other tissue and depends upon them for its growth and function. Despite relying so heavily upon PUFAs, mammals are unable to produce them and must use dietary sources. Modern diets tend to have dramatically reduced levels of omega-3 PUFA which has major implications for infant brain development and the maintenance of function during ageing. Many studies have shown a clear link between higher levels of omega-3 PUFA and a reduced risk of dementia. How omega-3 PUFA acts at the level of individual nerve cells and the molecules that influence this are largely unknown. Answering these questions is essential if the benefits of omega-3 are to be adequately translated into health benefits and the implications of dietary changes fully appreciated.

The background to this project is explained here in this summary of a talk I gave at the Sidmouth Café Scientifique entitled 'Can fish oils protect against dementia?'.

Other research topics:
References

Marszalek & Lodish (2005) Docosahexaenoic acid, fatty acid-interacting proteins, and neuronal function: breastmilk and fish are good for you.
Annu. Rev. Cell Dev. Biol. 21:633-657 PubMed