Omega-3 fatty acids, and DHA in particular, are associated with increased attention scores in adolescents

Summary: DHA consumption was associated with improved selective and sustained attention in adolescents, while ALA reduced impulsive behaviors.


Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is associated with greater capacity for selective and sustained attention in adolescents, while alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is associated with lower impulsivity, according to a study co-led by ISGlobal, a center supported by the Caixa Foundation” and the Pere Virgili Health Research Institute (ISPV).

The results confirm the importance of having a diet that provides sufficient amounts of these polyunsaturated fatty acids for healthy brain development.

During adolescence, important structural and functional changes occur in the brain, especially in the prefrontal area, which plays an important role in the control of attention. On the other hand, omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids are known to be critical for proper brain development and functioning.

The most abundant fatty acid in the brain, especially in the prefrontal area, is DHA, which is mainly obtained by eating fatty fish.

“Despite the established importance of DHA in brain development, few studies have assessed whether it plays a role in the attentional performance of healthy adolescents”, says Jordi Júlvez, IISPV researcher, ISGlobal research associate and coordinator of the study

“In addition, the possible role of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), another omega-3 but of plant origin, has not been so widely studied,” he adds. This is relevant, given the low consumption of fish in Western societies.

The aim of this study was to determine if a higher intake of DHA and ALA was associated with an increase in attention performance in a group of 332 adolescents from different schools in Barcelona.

Participants underwent computerized tests that measure reaction times to determine selective and sustained attention, inhibitory ability to distracting stimuli, and impulsivity.

During adolescence, important structural and functional changes occur in the brain, especially in the prefrontal area, which plays an important role in the control of attention. The image is in the public domain

The teenagers also answered a series of questions about dietary habits and gave blood samples to measure red blood cell levels of DHA and ALA, an objective and valid indication of long-term dietary intake of these fats.

The results prove it higher levels of DHA are associated with more selective and sustained attention and inhibitory attention. However, WING was not associated with attentional performance, but it was less impulsivity.

“The role of ALA in the control of attention is not yet clear, but this finding may be clinically relevant, as impulsivity is a characteristic of several psychiatric conditions, such as ADHD”, explains Ariadna Pinar-Martí, first author of the study.

“Our study indicates that dietary DHA probably plays a role in tasks that require attention, but further studies are needed to confirm a cause-effect, as well as to understand the role of ALA,” concludes Júlvez.

In any case, the findings add to existing evidence of the benefit of consuming fatty fish (the main source of DHA) at a time when the brain is developing at its most sophisticated before reaching adulthood adult

About this diet, supplements and attention research news

Author: Adelaide Sarukhan
Contact: Adelaide Sarukhan – ISGLOBAL
Image: The image is in the public domain

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Original Research: Open access
“Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acids and attention scores in healthy adolescents” by Jordi Júlvez et al. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry


Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acids and attention scores in healthy adolescents

Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for brain function. Adolescence is increasingly believed to bring with it a brain vulnerability to dietary intake. In contrast to the abundant research on omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in cognition, research on DHA and attention in healthy adolescents is sparse. Also, the role of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant omega-3 fatty acid, has not been explored.

We examined the associations between DHA and ALA and attentional function among a healthy young population. In this cross-sectional study conducted in 372 adolescents (13.8 ± 0.9 years), we determined red blood cell proportions of DHA and ALA by gas chromatography (objective biomarkers of their long-term dietary intake) and measured the attention scores using the Network Attention Test.

We constructed multivariable linear regression models to analyze associations, controlling for known confounders. Compared to participants in the lowest DHA tertile (reference), those in the highest DHA tertile showed a significantly lower impact reaction time standard error (higher attention) (28.13 ms, confidence interval of 95%[CI]= – 52.30; – 3.97), lower impact reaction time (– 38.30 ms, 95% CI = – 73.28; – 3.33) and lower response to executive conflict (– 5.77 ms, CI of 95% = – 11.44; – 0.09).

In contrast, higher values ​​were observed in those in the top tertile of ALA in impact reaction time compared to the bottom (46.14 ms, 95% CI = 9.90; 82.34) . However, a beneficial association was observed for ALA, with decreasing impulsivity index across tertiles. Overall, our results suggest that DHA (reflecting its dietary intake) is associated with attentional performance in typically developing adolescents.

The role of dietary ALA in attention is less clear, although higher blood levels of ALA appear to result in less impulsivity. Future intervention studies are needed to determine the causality of these associations and to better shape dietary recommendations for brain health during the adolescent period.

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