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Omega-3 fatty acid could boost IQ for preterm babies


Brain photo

New research has found a link between the omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and increased IQ among children born prematurely.


Babies who are born prematurely have increased risks for a wide range of mental, as well as physical health problems - including poorer cognitive development and IQ.

The last trimester of pregnancy is an extremely rapid period of brain development - and babies who are born early miss out on the nutrition they would have received from their mother, had their pregnancy run to full term.

That prenatal nutrition includes the long-chain essential fatty acids omega-3 DHA, and omega-6 AA - both of which play critical roles in the normal development of the brain and nervous system.  

In fact, the placenta concentrates both DHA and AA, delivering both of these particular fatty acids to the foetus in higher concentrations than are found in the mother's own circulation - a process termed 'biomagnification'.  By contrast, the placenta actively blocks transfer of the shorter chain omega-3 and omega-6 fats (known as ALA and LA respectively). 

This selective transfer by the placenta of the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) - both AA and DHA - indicates how important these specific fats are to the healthy development of the unborn child.

Omega-3 DHA (found in fish and seafood) is indispensable for normal visual and cognitive development.

This new study therefore assessed whether providing additional DHA to infants born pre-term might have benefits - and found that those given extra DHA from birth showed significantly higher IQ than a matched control group when assessed at 5 years of age. 

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27/10/2022 - Medical Xpress

New research from SAHMRI has found a link between the omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and increased IQ among children born prematurely.

Preterm children are more likely to have lower IQ scores and cognitive impairments compared with term-born children.

Dr. Jacqueline Gould, who led the study now published in the New England Journal of Medicine, says infants born at the earliest gestations are deprived of the natural supply of DHA that normally builds up in the brain during the last trimester of pregnancy.

"These babies have low concentrations of DHA in their brain tissue, which may contribute to poorer cognitive outcomes," Dr. Gould said.

"The goal of our research was to test if supplementing these children with DHA after they're born, can make up for some of what they lacked due to preterm birth and boost brain development."

The study followed 323 infants born before 29 weeks' gestation, who were given 60mg of DHA/kg per day via enteral or control tube feeding.

They were compared with 333 children in the control group, who received an emulsion with no DHA. At five years old, children in both groups underwent the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI) IQ test.

"On average, those in the DHA group scored 3.5 points higher on the IQ scale than those in the control group," Dr. Gould said.

"These very promising results suggest DHA has the potential to improve cognitive performance when administered via emulsion for infants born before 29 weeks' gestation."

Although medical advances over the past 30 years have increased the survival rates of infants born before 29 weeks' gestation, there has been no improvement in their cognitive development.

Supplying DHA to these infants while they are in hospital may be one simple intervention that can help boost brain function.