Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for healthy brain development, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University found that monkeys that ate a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids had brains with highly connected and well organised neural networks — in some ways akin to the neural networks in healthy humans.

Monkeys that ate a diet deficient in the fatty acids had much more limited brain networking, researchers said.

The study provides further evidence for the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in healthy brain development, they said.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids for the human body. But while they are needed for human health, the body can’t make them — it has to get them through food.

The study is the first time scientists have been able to use functional brain imaging in live animals to see the large-scale interaction of multiple brain networks in a monkey.

These patterns are remarkably similar to the networks found in humans using the same imaging techniques.

“The data shows the benefits in how the monkeys’ brains organise over their lifetime if in the setting of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids,” said Damien Fair, assistant professor of behavioural neuroscience and assistant professor of psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine and senior author on the paper.

“The data also shows in detail how similar the networks in a monkey brain are to networks in a human brain, but only in the context of a diet rich in omega-3-fatty acids,” Fair said.

The study measured a kind of omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, which is a primary component of the human brain and important in development of the brain and vision.

DHA is especially found in fatty fish and oils from those fish - including salmon, mackerel and tuna.

The scientists studied a group of older rhesus macaque monkeys - 17 to 19 years of age - from Oregon National Primate Research Centre (ONPRC) that had been fed all of their lives either a diet low or high in omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA.

They found that monkeys that had the high-DHA diet had strong connectivity of early visual pathways in their brains.

It also found that monkeys with the high-DHA diet showed greater connections within various brain networks similar to the human brain - including networks for higher-level processing and cognition, said David Grayson, former research assistant in Fair’s lab and first author on the paper.

“For example, we could see activity and connections within areas of the macaque brain that are important in the human brain for attention,” said Fair.

The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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