Research has already shows that DHA omega-3 fatty acids are good for the brain but less it understood about how it is absorbed by the body. A new study conducted by the University of Singapore and published online in Nature have identified a transport protein that is used to carry DHA from other parts of the body.
The research team identified the role of a particular protein called Mfsd2a and believe it has widespread implications for how DHA functions in human nutrition.
DHA omega-3 fatty acid is an essential dietary nutrient
DHA omega-3 fatty acid is an essential dietary nutrient sourced from seafood and marine oils - in fact infant nutrition companies are particularly aware of the benefits of DHA and consequently almost every brand of baby formula contains the substance.
Crucial for brain function
The brain does not make DHA but it is found most abundantly there and is thought to be crucial for brain function. Nutrient uptake within the brain takes place in two ways:
- a developing brain receives its DHA during foetal development from the mother
- the adult brain obtains it through food or DHA produced by the liver
How exactly the brain absorbs the fatty acid has remained a mystery - however if the mystery were to be unlocked it would provide information that could be utilised to formulate a nutritional agent which targets more effective absorption.
Transporter protein identified as major pathway for uptake
In the study researchers found that mice without the Mfsd2a transporter had brains a third smaller than those with the transporter and exhibited memory and learning deficits and higher levels of anxiety.
Researchers recognised that the learning, memory and behavioural function of these mice were similar to omega-3 fatty acid deficiency in mice starved of DHA in their diet.
Furthermore the team discovered that mice without Mfsd2a were deficient in DHA and made the surprising discovery that Mfsd2a transports DHA in phospholipids mainly produced by the liver - these phospholipids circulate in human blood at high levels.
Based on this discovery the research team showed that Mfsd2a is the major pathway for the uptake of DHA carried in specific phospholipids by the growing foetal brain and the adult brain. This is the first time a genetic model for brain DHA deficiency and it's functions in the brain have been made available.
Provides potential for improved nutritionals for brain growth and function
Associate Professor David L Silver, senior author of the research, said: "Our findings can help guide the development of technologies to more effectively incorporate DHA into food and exploit this pathway to maximise the potential for improved nutritionals to improve brain growth and function. This is especially important for pre-term babies who would not have received sufficient DHA during foetal development."