Research Article: Prenatal maternal docosahexaenoic acid intake and infant information processing at 4.5mo and 9mo: A longitudinal study

Date Published: February 13, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Alison Rees, Sylvain Sirois, Alison Wearden, Juan J Loor.


Previous research suggesting an association between maternal prenatal docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) intake and infant cognition has yet to assess whether there is a critical trimester for the observed effects. We used a comprehensive Food Frequency Questionnaire to estimate DHA levels during both the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, in a sample of 125 pregnant women. Infants were assessed at 4.5 months and 9 months post-partum using specific tests of visual acuity, habituation, and visual attention. Based on maternal DHA levels during pregnancy, mothers were subdivided into high, medium, and low groups, and their infants compared for task performance using one-way ANOVAs with maternal DHA groups. On the 9 month visual acuity test, infants whose mothers were in the medium DHA group performed significantly better than those with mothers in the low or high DHA groups (p = 0.008). However, no significant finding was found for any of the other cognitive assessment measures. Despite a number of studies reporting a positive effect of higher DHA levels on cognitive development, this study fails to support those conclusions. We can, however, conclude that it appears to be DHA intake in the third trimester specifically, which is influencing the development of visual acuity towards the end of the first postnatal year.

Partial Text

Long-chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (LCPUFAs), especially those of the Omega-3 (n-3) family, play a vital role in neurological functioning, being highly concentrated in the myelin sheath and membranes of synaptic terminals of the brain and central nervous system, (CNS)[1,2] and play an important role in the development and control of neurotransmitter systems[3,4]. Omega-3 LCPUFAs are believed to be particularly important during the prenatal and early postnatal developmental periods[5,6,7] with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, n-3 family) appearing to be the key nutrient at this time. DHA is preferentially transferred across the placenta and selectively accreted in fetal brain and retinal tissue during pregnancy[8,9], with rapid accretion and uptake beginning at the start of the third trimester, continuing throughout this trimester, and into the first two years of postnatal life, albeit at a slightly reduced rate postpartum. This characteristic pattern of preferential placental transfer, accretion and uptake suggests a particular need for this nutrient within the developing brain at that time[10].

This aim of this study was to examine the effect of maternal DHA intake during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, on infant postnatal cognitive development. As a number of previous studies have reported improvements in performance on a number of cognitive tasks, for infants whose mothers had a higher DHA intake during pregnancy (or postnatally via breastmilk or DHA containing infant formula), our hypotheses predicted a similar pattern of results. However, for the two cognitive assessment measures we examined (habituation and sustained visual attention) we found no significant differences in infant performance at either 4.5 months or 9 months of age. Given that positive findings have been previously reported elsewhere[28,29,33] (although a number of null findings have also been reported [30, 31]), there could be a number of reasons for this. It may be that the levels of DHA among the women in our sample were not high/variable enough to elicit increased performance in the cognitive tests employed; that the cognitive tests themselves were not sensitive enough to pick up on any performance differences; that the age of infant testing sessions was not appropriate to detect what may, potentially, be transient effects on cognitive development; or, simply, that variations in prenatal maternal DHA intake do not have any significant effect on the development of infant attention or habituation performance. Or, more likely, that a combination of some/all of these factors are contributing to the observed results.

Putting together the findings from all of the tasks in this study, and considering them in relation to the inconsistent pattern of findings from previous research, it is impossible to conclude, with any reasonable degree of certainty, whether or not higher intake of DHA (either maternally during pregnancy or breastfeeding, or via infant postnatal levels) promotes better infant cognitive development. This view is supported by the most recent Cochrane reviews[43,44] reporting that, on balance, the current published empirical evidence does not support the theory of higher DHA levels resulting in better infant cognitive development (in infants born at term). Despite the number of positive studies reporting such a link, routine maternal supplementation and/or addition of DHA to infant formula should not be recommended at this time based on purported cognitive outcomes.




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