Few things are as important in a baby’s first year of life as nutrition – that’s a given. But new research also shows that even small amounts of a dietary supplement spur faster cognitive development and improved cardiovascular health in infants.
Collaborative research conducted by John Colombo, director of the Life Span Institute and professor of psychology in Lawrence, and Susan Carlson, A.J Rice Professor of Dietetics and Nutrition at the KU Medical Center, has shown that infants born to mothers with high blood levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) had improved attention throughout the first two years of life. But in 2008, Colombo, Carlson and their interdisciplinary research team reported a new finding: infants who were supplemented with DHA during the first year of life also showed an improvement in attention during the first year.
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that accumulates during the last two trimesters of pregnancy and is transferred from mother to baby. DHA affects brain and eye development and its presence in the central nervous system is thought to be important to cognitive functioning throughout the life span.
Since the 1990s, Colombo and Carlson have studied the connection between DHA and cognitive development. They have collaborated on a major industry-funded randomized clinical trial of postnatal supplementation since 2003, and in 2006 they received a $2.1 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to support another randomized clinical trial of the effects of prenatal supplementation with DHA. Although results from the NIH study won’t be known for some time, findings from the postnatal trial are beginning to emerge. Infants with varying amounts of the DHA supplement all showed improvements in physiological and behavioral measures of attention across the rst nine months of life.
Other big news coming out of the study suggests cardiovascular benefits for infants as well. With DHA, the researchers produced what Colombo called “a very powerful effect” on infants’ heart rate measured during a cognitive task.
“DHA supplementation clearly lowered infants’ overall heart rate,” Colombo said. “There have been hints in the scientific literature that fish oil – one of the main dietary sources of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids – can lower heart rates in adults and children. Our study was the first to establish this in an experimental clinical trial with infants and the first that allows us to conclude that the effect is due to DHA.”
Colombo and Carlson will follow the infants in the study to age six to determine if lowering an infant’s heart rate affects overall health and body characteristics and whether improving attention improves behavioral outcomes.