Food and Behaviour Research

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An (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acid-deficient diet disturbs daily locomotor activity, melatonin rhythm, and striatal dopamine in Syrian hamsters.

Lavialle M, Champeil-Potokar G, Alessandri JM, Balasse L, Guesnet P, Papillon C, Pévet P, Vancassel S, Vivien-Roels B, Denis I. (2008) J Nutr. 138(9): 1719-24 

Web URL: View this and related abstracts via PubMed here


Several studies suggest that (n-3) PUFA may play a role in the regulation of cognitive functions, locomotor and exploratory activity, and affective disorders. Additionally, (n-3) PUFA affect pineal function, which is implicated in the sleep-wake rhythm. However, no studies to our knowledge have explored the role of PUFA on the circadian system.

We investigated the effect of an (n-3) PUFA-deficient diet on locomotor and pineal melatonin rhythms in Syrian hamsters used as model species in circadian rhythm research. To assess the possible relationship between voluntary wheel running activity and dopaminergic neurotransmission, we also measured endogenous monoamine concentrations in the striatum. Two-month-old male hamsters, fed either an (n-3) PUFA-deficient or an (n-3) PUFA-adequate diet, were housed individually in cages equipped with run wheels. At 3 mo, cerebral structures were extracted for biochemical and cellular analysis.

In (n-3) PUFA-deficient hamsters, the induced changes in the pineal PUFA membrane phospholipid composition were associated with a reduction in the nocturnal peak level of melatonin that was 52% lower than in control hamsters (P < 0.001). The (n-3) PUFA-deficient hamsters also had higher diurnal (P < 0.01) and nocturnal (P = 0.001) locomotor activity than the control hamsters, in parallel with activation of striatal dopaminergic function (P < 0.05). The (n-3) PUFA-deficient hamsters exhibited several symptoms: chronic locomotor hyperactivity, disturbance in melatonin rhythm, and striatal hyperdopaminergia.

We suggest that an (n-3) PUFA-deficient diet lessens the melatonin rhythm, weakens endogenous functioning of the circadian clock, and plays a role in nocturnal sleep disturbances as described in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.


This study found that a diet lacking in omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduced melatonin - a key hormone involved in initiating sleep, and maintaining a normal body-clock.

Animals on the omega-3 deficient diet also showed increased dopamine in brain areas important for activity and reward, and corresponding increased motor activity both night and day, compared with controls.

While findings from animal studies can never be assumed to generalise to humans, this study is consistent with increasing evidence from human studies that a lack of omega-3 can contribute to a wide range of mental health problems - including evidence from controlled clinical trials (see the review by Freeman et al 2006)

Given that sleep disturbance is a factor in many different mental health conditions - notably ADHD, depression and schizophrenia - these findings clearly deserve further investigation in humans.