Monday, October 12, 2009

Yet Another Study on DHA and Cognitive Development


The most recent edition of the journal Child Development is packed full of great articles on topics very relevant to many parents. I'll be highlighting some of these articles in upcoming posts including more research on TV/videos and their impact on language development and parent-child interactions. Today, however, I'd like to highlight an article that looks at the connection between DHA (a polyunsaturated fatty acid) and cognitive development in infants and toddlers.

DHA has been in the news a lot in recent years because some studies have shown that infants and children who receive it in their diets have increased cognitive development. The research, however, hasn't always been clear cut and some studies showed no significant advantages for those children receiving DHA.

Breastmilk is a natural source of DHA for infants, especially if the mother eats a balanced diet with adequate amounts of fatty acids (from things like salmon or walnuts). Until recently, however, many infant formulas did not contain DHA. When research studies started showing benefits of DHA, many formula companies jumped on the bandwagon and have begun including DHA in their products. In fact, you've probably noticed DHA popping up in all sorts of children's foods like milk and juice.

You may wonder whether this is just another marketing ploy or whether DHA really does have some benefits for children's cognitive development. This recent study in Child Development offers further evidence that DHA is linked to cognitive advantages, at least among infants. Here's a quick review of the study:

- 229 infants were fed either traditional formula or formula with added DHA

- the infants were given the formula at different points in development: (1) shortly after birth, (2) after 6 weeks of breastfeeding, or (3) after 4-6 months of breastfeeding

- at 9 months of age the infants were given a problem solving task to do which involved several steps to obtain a rattle

-results showed that infants who were fed formula with added DHA performed better on the problem solving task and showed more intentional behavior compared to infants fed traditional formula

The authors point out that performance on the type of problem solving task they used in this study has been linked to IQ and vocabulary at later ages so these findings may imply that DHA has long-term impacts on cognitive ability beyond infancy.

It is important to note that all the infants in this study were fed formula. This was NOT a comparison between formula-fed and breastfed babies. The goal of this study was to assess whether formula supplemented with DHA was linked to any cognitive advantages over non-DHA formula. The authors point out that the amount of DHA typically found in breastmilk is even higher than that found in DHA-added formula.

Although this is only one study, it provides further evidence that DHA is linked to better cognitive ability in infants. While it is not yet clear that DHA-supplemented foods benefit older children, this type of research suggests that it might. Hopefully in the years ahead more and more research will be conducted to test just that.

For more information check out the press release.

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