The team found that in a rodent model second-generation deficiencies of omega-3s caused elevated states of anxiety and hyperactivity in adolescents and affected the teens' memory and cognition.
Bita Moghaddam, lead author of the paper and professor of neuroscience in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, that the team has always assumed that stress at this age is the main environmental insult that contributes to developing these conditions in at-risk individuals but this study indicates that nutrition is a big factor, too.
She said that the team found that this dietary deficiency can compromise the behavioral health of adolescents, not only because their diet is deficient but because their parents' diet was deficient as well.
Moghaddam asserted that this is of particular concern as adolescence is a very vulnerable time for developing psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia and addiction.
Diets lacking omega-3 fatty acids-found in foods like wild fish, eggs, and grass-fed livestock-can have worsened effects over consecutive generations, especially affecting teens, according to a University of Pittsburgh study.
Performing experiments in rats in Moghaddam's laboratory, the research team examined a "second generation" of omega-3-deficient diets, mimicking present-day adolescents. Parents of many of today's teens were born in the 1960s and 1970s, a time period in which omega-3-deficient oils like corn and soy oil became prevalent, and farm animals moved from eating grass to grain. Since omega-3s are present in grass and algae, much of today's grain-fed cattle contain less of these essential fatty acids.
The Pitt team administered a set of behavioral tasks to study the learning and memory, decision making, anxiety, and hyperactivity of both adults and adolescents.
Although subjects appeared to be in general good physical health, there were behavioral deficiencies in adolescents that were more pronounced in second-generation subjects with omega-3 deficiencies. Overall, these adolescents were more anxious and hyperactive, learned at a slower rate, and had impaired problem-solving abilities.
The findings have been published in Biological Psychiatry.