Essential Fatty Acids
Improve Infant IQ

This section was compiled by Frank M. Painter, D.C.
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By Richard N. Podell, M.D.

An infant's brain grows rapidly during the first year of life--tripling its size from birth. In that year, the foundations for intelligence, vision and language are built. Since the human brain is about 60 percent fat, all this brain building requires fatty acids. Proper foods, rich in those fats, might even give babies an intelligence advantage.

Animal experiments show one cause of low intelligence is prenatal deficiency of essential fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), [1, 2] found in fatty fish and algae supplements. DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid and cousin to the better-known omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Postnatal studies are also beginning to confirm the connection between DHA and intelligence.

DHA and the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid are the dominant fats in the nerve cells of fetal and infant brains. So does low DHA cause brain damage or less than optimal brain function in humans? There is some evidence to suggest the answer is yes. For example, premature infants are often low in DHA and are at higher than average risk for neurological problems. [3] Children with hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder also tend to have low levels of DHA. [4]

These observations suggest a causative role for essential fatty acid deficiencies in childhood neurological problems. However, we need prospective interventions to test whether adding DHA can prevent or treat neurological or mental disease.

A recent article in The Lancet reported the groundbreaking news that infants given a DHA-enriched formula had superior problem-solving ability at 10 months compared with infants who drank the standard, low-DHA commercial product.

P. Willatts, Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of Dundee in Scotland obtained parental cooperation on behalf of 44 healthy, full-term newborns. Starting shortly after birth, half the babies received a standard infant formula while the others received the same formula supplemented with arachidonic acid and DHA. The fat supplement was derived from milk fat, vegetable oils and egg lipids.

When tested at 10 months, both groups had normal physical development and were equally able to solve simple mental problems. However, faced with a more complex mental challenge, those taking DHA-supplemented formula did better--and their advantage was statistically significant. [5]

In this study the 10-month-olds were presented with the following challenge: They watched a toy being placed under a cover. The covered toy was set on a long cloth with the end of the cloth near the child. A barrier stood between the cloth and the child. To get the toy, infants had to solve this three-step problem.

In four trials both groups were equally successful at removing the barrier and starting to tug on the cloth. However, the last step -- pulling the covered toy all the way into reach and removing the cover -- was accomplished more often by the group receiving DHA-enhanced formula.

Since higher problem-solving scores in infancy are related to higher childhood IQs, this study suggests that the simple addition of crucial fats to infant formula could improve IQs in millions of children. If other studies reproduce and extend Willatts' results, infant formula manufacturers will be under pressure to add essential fats to their products--making the composition of their formulas closer to that of mother's milk, which is relatively rich in DHA.

Until formulas are fortified with essential fatty acids, should pregnant women increase their intake of fish or take DHA-enriched supplements? We do not know enough to say. Although there are no known downsides to DHA-enriched formula, DHA supplements derived from fish oil are not recommended for pregnant women and children 5 years and younger. Fish oil contains fairly large amounts of EPA and moderate amounts of DHA. In adults, both are assimilated. In infants and fetuses, however, there is concern that EPA might compete with DHA for a place in nerve-cell membranes, making administration of fish oil at a young age counterproductive. Algae supplements are a better source of DHA for children. Pregnant or lactating women should consult with their health care providers before taking any supplements.

DHA is relatively new to the limelight. More research and attention have focused on EPA, an omega-3 thought able to combat heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease. The complex actions of essential fatty acids are still not fully understood. However, this promising preliminary research means more studies are sure to follow--particularly if there is potential to increase infant intelligence.

Richard N. Podell, M.D., is director of the Podell Medical Center in New Providence, N.J.


1. Crawford M. Are deficits of arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids responsible for the neural and vascular complications of preterm babies? Am J Clin Nutr 1997;66(Suppl):1032S-41S.

2. Crawford M. The role of essential fatty acids in neural development: implications for perinatal nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr 1993;57(Suppl):703S-9S.

3. Makrides M. Are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids essential nutrients in infancy? Lancet 1995;345:1463-8.

4. Stevens L. Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Am J Clin Nutr 1995;62:761-8.

5. Willatts P, et al. Effect of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in infant formula on problem solving at 10 months of age. Lancet 1998;352:688-91.

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