DHA – Containing Formula and Improved Problem Solving in Infants

October 29, 2009


Three Randomized Controlled Trials of Early Long-Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Supplementation on Means-End Problem Solving in 9-Month-Olds
Drover et al., Child Development, 80: 1376-1384, 2009.
Retina Foundation of the Southwest and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas


The present study was conducted to determine whether feeding infants (full-term) a formula supplemented with long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids as compared to a corresponding control formula lacking the latter might possibly improve cognitive functioning of infants. The supplemented formula provided 0.36% of milk fat as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid omega-3) and 0.72% by weight of total milk fat as ARA (arachidonic acid omega-6). One group of infants were started at day 5 with feeding durations for a 12 month period on the supplemented or control formulae while a separate trial employed a start time of 6 weeks (after breast-feeding) with a feeding duration of 6 weeks. The evaluations consisted of ‘means-end problem solving’ which involved a problem solving using a two-step task in which the infant had to successfully complete two steps in order to retrieve a toy (rattle). In the 12-month feeding study, 26% of the infants ingesting DHA/EPA obtained a perfect intention score as compared to only 16% for those consuming the deficient formula. In the 6-week study, 35% obtained a perfect intention score when consuming the supplemented formula (containing DHA+ARA) whereas only 7% obtained such a score from the control (deficient) group. The authors concluded that the supplemented children had more intentional solution (successful task completion) and higher intention score (goal-directed behavior) than controls thereby supporting an improvement in means-end problem solving with long-chain fatty acid supplementation (as DHA+ARA).

Dr. Holub's Comments:

It should be pointed out that the present trial was not designed to determine whether the addition of ARA might provide any added benefit over and above the presence of DHA omega-3 (at 0.36% of total milk fat) since both long-chain fatty acids were included in the supplemented group when compared to the control (deficient) group. However, various previous studies indicate that the presence of adequate levels of DHA added to infant formula or the consumption of breast milk with higher levels of DHA has, in many cases but not all, been found to yield an overall better outcome with respect to cognitive performance. In addition, a better overall performance in visual acuity has been observed in some of these studies. It is noteworthy that typical North American breast milk have levels which fall well short of the 0.36% of milk fat as DHA as employed in the present study. Increasing daily average DHA intakes in lactating North American women from current levels of approximately 80 mg/day up to 200-300 mg/day can be expected, in most cases, to increase the levels of DHA in milk fat to be approximately 0.35% of total milk fat. It remains to be studied whether higher levels (up to 1.0% as common in Japanese breast milk) may be of added benefit.

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