Food and Behaviour Research

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26 May 2010 - World's foremost omega-3 experts warn against mental health epidemic

From the 'Celebration of DHA' Press Conference, Wednesday 26th May 2010, at The Royal Society of Medicine

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

The burden of mental health disorders is already overtaking that of physical health disorders in developed countries. The potential consequences of this are disastrous, not only for public health, but in terms of the wider economic, political and social implications.

This rise in 'brain disorders' was predicted 40 years ago by Professor Michael Crawford as an inevitable consequence if policy-makers continued to ignore the fundamental role of nutrition - and particularly dietary fats - in shaping brain development and function.

The warnings were not acted upon then. They urgently need to be addressed now - because unless they are, things can only get worse.

The world’s foremost authorities in neuroscience and nutrition have today given detailed evidence-based predictions to the incoming UK Government on the rise in brain disorders, urging them to tackle the root cause of the rise in brain disorders and mental ill health or face unthinkable health, social and fiscal consequences.

The scientists issued the stark warning on the need to tackle the root cause of adverse nutritional conditions during brain development ahead of the ‘DHA Celebration’ conference at The Royal Society of Medicine in central London, which will see the field’s principle experts coming together to mark the 40th anniversary of research into docosahexaenoic acid (the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA).

Last century, the nutritional paradigm for food and agricultural policies was rooted in the perceived need for protein, calories and body growth. However, it was not body growth that characterised human evolution: it was growth of the brain.

No attention has been given in food policies or the food system to this - the one outstanding characteristic which makes us human.

Calling for a new focus to be placed on policies for health, food, agriculture, pollution of aquatic and marine resources and their rational use, with a restoration of traditional fish and seafood consumption, the experts have predicted that brain disorders and mental ill health will be the top two burdens of ill health worldwide by 2020, and are the greatest threat to humankind today.

Professor Michael Crawford, organiser and guest of honour at the ‘DHA Celebration’ conference said: “We need to see action at the most fundamental level to circumvent the mental health epidemic facing our society. The issue must be addressed in school-level education; maternal and infant nutrition; food, agricultural and fisheries policies; and in moving to adequately address river, estuarine and coastal pollution. 

“We estimate that the bulk of the mental health issues could potentially be addressed and the impending rise in disorders reversed through adequate nutrition and we urge all parties to come together in tackling this most serious of problems. The financial, social and political issues for the function of society and peace demand the highest priority be given to this issue.”

In the early 1970s, work by Professor Michael Crawford and Andrew Sinclair discovered that the brain needed DHA for its structure, growth and function. At the same time Professors Gene Anderson and Nicholas Bazan in the US recognised that vision required docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) followed by a demonstration on learning effects by Professor Claudio Galli in Milan.

Since these early discoveries much new evidence has emerged describing the biological essentiality of DHA for vision and the brain, its function and behaviour.

Apart from overwhelming experimental evidence for the need to support brain growth during pre and early postnatal development, research conducted by the University of Bristol concluded that a DHA-poor diet could lead to a loss of verbal IQ, adverse prosocial, fine motor and social development scores and an increase in behavioural problems. (See Hibbeln et al 2007).

When Crawford identified the DHA requirement for the brain in 1972, he published a book on the subject . Recognising that bad fats were a major cause of the rise in death from heart disease from a rarity at the beginning of the 20th Century to the number 1 killer by the 1970s, he predicted that as the brain is better protected but requires special and the right kind of essential fats, it would be next to suffer. Reviewing the book for the Sunday Times, journalist Graham Rose remarked that if correct and nothing was done then we would become a ‘race of morons’.

Just recently, Crawford’s research published by his Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition identified the poor state of maternal nutrition in pregnancy associated with low birth weight, which in previous work they identified as starting with school children.

They have also identified that an omega-3 deficiency is now a global problem as it is co-existing with iodine deficiency, to which some 1.6 billion people are at risk. Both deficiencies stunt brain development.

This global issue amplifies the urgent need for action, especially at the start of life, to prevent incidence of brain disorders and mental ill health continuing to rise this century as heart disease did last.

Coming together at the ‘DHA Press Conference’ on 26th May 2010, the group unveiled the latest research and scientific insights to make their comments on and recommendations for the future, with specific relevance to DHA consumption and its impact for human health.

Professor Michael Crawford, Director of the institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, chaired the press conference, introducing presentations from other ‘Omega-3 Alliance’ speakers:

Robert McNamara Ph.D:
‘DHA Supplementation and Child Psychiatry’ – the latest research into implications for brain function and behaviour in children

CAPT Joe Hibbeln:
‘Mood of the Nation – a diet induced epidemic of distress’ – a closer look at omega-3 and global mental health

Professor Jack Winkler:
‘Fish versus plant debate’ – the proposed EU legislation governing RDAs and nutritional claims for omega-3s, plus the implications for human health

The presentations were followed by a Q&A session, featuring leading experts Nicholas Bazan (Louisiana), Stephen Cunnane (Sherbrooke), Tom Brenna (Cornell), Christopher Robinson (Little Foundation) and John Stein (Oxford).

Lord Hameed of Hampstead, President of the Little Foundation for Cerebral Palsy and Allied Neurodevelopmental Disorders will follow up the conference with a seminar at the House of Lords on the 14th June to raise awareness of the implications for the cost to Government and society of disorders of brain development including cerebral palsy.

He will refer to the cost of mental ill health in the UK which, according to the DoH's own data, has risen to £77 billion in 2007 - greater than that of heart disease and cancer combined. Furthermore, The Wellcome Trust, one of the world's richest charities for medical research, has warned of a global crisis of nutrition in its 10 year strategic plan.

An ‘Evolution of DHA’ public exhibition will also be taking place for one month from 26th May at the Royal Society of Medicine’s library, 1 Wimpole Street, London.