In what’s being called the first study of its kind, researchers say that healthy young adults who take Omega-3 fish oil supplements can significantly improve their memory. Omega-3 fatty acids are commonly found in marine and plant oils.
A team at the University of Pittsburgh followed a group of healthy young men and women, ages 18-25, for six months. By increasing the group’s intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, researchers say they were able to improve the memory of every member of the group.
“Before seeing this data, I would have said it was impossible to move young healthy individuals above their cognitive best,” said Bita Moghaddam, project investigator and a professor of neuroscience. “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.”
Before the group began taking the supplements, they underwent positron emission tomography (PET) imaging and a blood test. They were then shown a series of letters and numbers in a memory exercise known as a simple ”n-back” test.
After six months of taking Lovaza, an Omega-3 supplement approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the participants completed a similar series of outpatient procedures. It was during this last stage of memory tests and blood sampling that researchers discovered the improvement in the group’s 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,” said Matthew Muldoon, project co-investigator and associate professor of medicine.
“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.”
However, there was a down side to the study. Although the effects of Omega-3 on young people were the focus, researchers also hoped to isolate the brain mechanism associated with Omega-3 regulation. That didn’t happen.
Previous studies suggested that removing Omega-3 from a diet might reduce dopamine storage, the neurotransmitter associated with mood and memory, and decrease density in VMAT2, a protein associated with decision making.
Researchers thought that increasing VMAT2 would theoretically improve memory. But PET imaging revealed that was not the case.
Ongoing studies indicate that the brain mechanisms affected by Omega-3s in young adults may be different than those in older adults.
“It is really interesting that diets enriched with Omega-3 fatty acid can enhance cognition in highly functional young individuals,” said Rajesh Narendarn, project principal investigator and associate professor of radiology. “Nevertheless, it was a bit disappointing that our imaging studies were unable to clarify the mechanisms by which it enhances working memory.”
Their findings were published online in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed journal.
The health effects of Omega-3 supplements are controversial. Some studies suggest that Omega-3 helps lower blood pressure and reduces inflammation. But researchers say there is little evidence that supplements reduce the risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease.