Healthy young adults can improve their working memory by increasing their Omega-3 fatty acids intake.

The finding came from a study, the first of its kind, from a team at the University of Pittsburgh and was published in PLOS One.

There have been several studies indicating that omega-3 essential fatty acids, found in foods such as grass-fed livestock and wild fish, are critical for the human body to function. One report indicated omega-3 fatty acids can lower a person’s chance of developing colon cancer. Another study indicated that they can protect men against heart failure.

However, until now, there had been no research on their impact on the working memory of healthy young adults. Bita Moghaddam, project investigator and professor of neuroscience, said:

“Before seeing this data, I would have said it was impossible to move young healthy individuals above their cognitive best. We found that members of this population can enhance their working memory performance even further, despite their already being at the top of their cognitive game.”

The experts examined healthy young males and females ages 18 to 25 from all ethnicities who heightened their Omega-3 intake with supplements for 6 months. Their progress was recorded through phone calls and outpatient procedures.

Before starting off on the supplements, all subjects had their blood samples analyzed and underwent positron emission tomography (PET) imaging, in order to observe how their tissues and organs were functioning.

A working memory test, known as “n-back test”, was then given to the participants, in which they were provided a series of letters and numbers. They had to remember what number/letter had been revealed one, two, and three times prior.

Moghaddam explained: “What was particularly interesting about the presupplementation n-back test was that it correlated positively with plasma Omega-3. This means that the Omega-3s they were getting from their diet already positively correlated with their working memory.”

The subjects completed the same series of outpatient prodecures after they finished taking Lovaza, an Omega-3 supplement approved by the Food and Drug Administatiom, for six months. Results of this last stage, from the working memory test and blood samples, showed an improvement in working memory.

“So many of the previous studies have been done with the elderly or people with medical conditions, leaving this unique population of young adults unaddressed,” revealed Matthew Muldoon, associate professor of medicine at Pitt. “But what about our highest-functioning periods? Can we help the brain achieve its full potential by adapting our healthy behaviors in our young adult life? We found that we absolutely can.”

Although the main goal of the research was to recognize the effects of Omega-3s on young adults, the scientists also wanted to observe the brain mechanism linked to regulating Omega-3.

Prior research on rodents suggested that eliminating Omega-3 from the diet can lower dopamine storage – the neurotransmitter linked to mood and working memory – and reduce density in the striatal vesicular monoamine transporter type 2 (VMAT2) – a protein linked to decision making.

This made the team believe that cognitive performance was raised by the increase of VMAT2 protein. However, PET imaging showed that this was not true.

Rajesh Narendarn, research leader and associate professor of radiology, concluded:

“It is really interesting that diets enriched with Omega-3 fatty acid can enhance cognition in highly functional young individuals. Nevertheless, it was a bit disappointing that our imaging studies were unable to clarify the mechanisms by which it enhances working memory.”

Ongoing trials in the Moghaddam lab on animals demonstrate that brain mechanisms that are impacted by Omega-3s may be affected differently in young adults and adolescents than in older adults.

Keeping this in mind, the experts are further analyzing the influence of Omega-3 fatty acids in younger people to determine the mechanism that affects cognition.

Written by Sarah Glynn