A new study has revealed that intake of omega-3 fatty acid, which is found in fish oil, may boost cognitive development in preterm infant girls.
Infants born before 33 weeks' gestation are at high risk of developmental disorders and learning disabilities. An inadequate nutrient supply during the newborn period is believed to contribute to this poor developmental outcome.
During the study, the research team led by Maria Makrides, B.Sc., B.N.D., Ph.D., of Women's and Children's Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre, Adelaide, Australia, conducted a randomized controlled trial to determine the effect of high-dose dietary Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) on mental development of preterm infants.
The infants received DHA from either breast milk or infant formula.
Lactating mothers allocated to the high-DHA group were asked to consume six 500-mg DHA-rich tuna oil capsules per day to achieve a high breast milk DHA concentration.
Mothers with infants allocated to the standard-DHA group were asked to consume six 500-mg placebo soy oil capsules that did not change the fat content or fatty acid composition of their milk.
To measure neurological development, the researchers used the Bayley Mental Development Index (MDI), which evaluates memory, problem solving, early number concepts and language.
They found that the MDI score among girls fed the high-DHA diet was significantly higher than among girls fed the standard-DHA diet, while the MDI score among boys did not differ between groups.
"Infants ranged in gestational age from 23 to 33 weeks and, thus, had a range of nutritional stressors, organ immaturity, and [illnesses]. Despite this, the intervention was sufficiently robust to consistently elicit an improvement in the MDI scores of girls and may point the way for higher-dose interventions in future studies," wrote the authors.
"Given the lack of an alternative therapy for cognitive delay in this group of infants and the apparent safety of the current dose of DHA, further studies are warranted," they added.
The study appears in the issue of JAMA.