fish oil improves working memory in healthy young adults

Omega-3′s, especially DHA research, just keeps confirming what our grandmother’s said about fish being ‘brain food’. Research headed by Rajesh Narendran at the University of Pittsburgh was published in the on line journal PLOS one in early October 2012, (you can read the rather technically written abstract here). This clinical trial tested working memory in 11 young men and women between the ages of 18 and 25, before and after 6 months of supplementation with 930 mg of EPA and 750 mg DHA per day.

Working memory is the memory that we use to hold a number of different tasks in mind–such as when we ask our kids to ‘go upstairs, put on your pajamas, wash your face, brush your teeth, then get get a book, get in bed, and then I’ll come up and read to you”. Until this becomes a routine, it requires working memory to keep all those steps in mind. We need it a lot working with computers, to follow a set of complex sequential tasks–the better our working memory, the less often we have to refer back to the directions.

There were a number of very surprising things about this study. First, they found that baseline working memory correlated rather well with the level of DHA found in each participant’s red blood cell membranes (a convenient place to test, since DHA and EPA are taken up in cell membranes). Further, at the end of the study, all 11 subjects had an improvement in working memory, which again correlated with the increase in DHA content of their red blood cell membranes.Researchers were a bit disappointed that the sophisticated brain imaging that they also did could not discern the mechanism by which this improvement in working memory occurred.

Researcher Bita Moghaddam commented “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.” Coauthor Matthew Muldoon noted “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. 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.”

These levels of EPA and DHA can be achieved with 2 capsules of any high quality fish oil that is concentrated to at least 2/3 EPA+DHA (standard fish oil is 1/3 EPA+DHA). Be sure that it is from small ocean fish, such as sardines, which have lower levels of environmental contaminants to begin with, is protected from oxidation during processing, which should include molecular distillation to remove residual contaminants such as PCBs, and dioxins, and is preserved with potent antioxidants. So if you or your kids want to do well in school, 2 capsules a day of high quality fish oil appears to definitely provide a benefit.