Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Cod Liver Oil May Help Young and Old
BY SONIA GULATI, PH.D. STUDENT
INSTITUTE OF HUMAN NUTRITION
APPROXIMATELY A DECADE OF HIGHER LEARNING HAS TAUGHT me one basic tenet: Perhaps Grandma does know best. For years she touted the wondrous ability of cod liver oil to cure every ailment from blurry vision to the common cold. I am still haunted by the memory of my brother and me lining up every night with our spoons in hand, begrudgingly accepting our fate of swallowing cod liver oil. At the time it felt more like a death sentence than the elixir of good health my grandmother claimed it to be.
As I got older I began to dismiss the all-encompassing therapeutic effects of cod liver oil as nothing more than an
old wives’ tale. However, it appears that science has finally caught up with my grandmother. Cod liver oil specifically its omega 3 fatty acids has been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and mitigate the symptoms of such inflammatory conditions as rheumatoid arthritis and components of type 2 diabetes.
Richard Deckelbaum and Ph.D. student Jill Williams
Recent evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may not only help ameliorate ailments associated with the wear and tear of aging, but also may play a pivotal role in mitigating diseases faced by the youngest and smallest members of society. Premature infants often face a complex and vast array of health problems, including hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). Caused primarily by insufficient oxygenation of the blood and reduced cerebral blood flow, HIE afflicts 1.5 to 2 per 1,000 live births in the United States. Approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of these infants will die during the newborn period. For those who survive, 25 percent will exhibit permanent neuropsychological handicaps in the form of cerebral palsy with or without associated mental retardation, learning disability, or epilepsy. Prevention is problematic, as the initiating event may occur before the onset of labor and no proven effective therapies have been identified.
Brain injury is an evolving process that is set in motion with a hypoxic-ischemic event and progresses after resuscitation. A complex and tangled web of molecular mechanisms contribute to the brain damage associated with HIE during this period. Some of these mechanisms include excitotoxic damage and free radical generation. Glutamate, an excitotoxic amino acid, plays a vital role in the development of the nervous system, promoting neuronal survival, growth, and differentiation. However, in a hypoxic state when the concentration of this transmitter is in excess, neurons begin to fire abnormally. At higher concentrations, the cells undergo a specialized process of delayed cell death known as excitotoxicity: They are literally excited to death. Furthermore, in a hypoxic state, free radicals, molecules with unpaired electrons, are generated. This feature makes a free radical unstable and highly reactive, as it is constantly scavenging and attempting to capture an electron that will stabilize it. By capturing electrons from molecules nearby, the free radical converts other molecules to free radicals, thereby initiating a destructive chain reaction. Oxidative changes in lipids and proteins injure cell membranes, modify protective enzymes, and essentially severely alter cellular function.
Studies in human infants and animal models have shown there is an interval of several hours after resuscitation during which a therapeutic intervention might effectively reduce the severity of the ultimate brain damage. It is these very moments between the initiation of the hypoxic ischemic event and the ultimate devastation it can beget on the brain that has piqued the interest of Richard Deckelbaum, M.D., director of the Institute of Human Nutrition, and his graduate student, Jill Williams, a Ph.D. student in the institute.
Dr. Deckelbaum and Ms. Williams, in collaboration with Drs. Susan Vanucci and David Talmage, are exploring
whether the administration of omega 3 fatty acids may mollify the eventual brain damage caused by a hypoxic ischemic event. Studies have proven omega 3 fatty acids to be potent neuroprotectors, exerting a beneficial effect on epileptic seizures, depression, bipolar, and other behavioral diseases. However, the exact mechanisms by which omega 3 fatty acids impart their neuroprotective effect remain to be elucidated. The Deckelbaum lab will be treating an animal model that simulates perinatal hypoxia-ischemia with varying doses of EPA and DHA (omega 3 fatty acids) at different time points and measuring the generation of ROS, various markers of oxidative damage, and indices of inflammation.
The aim of the study is two-fold: to both determine the optimal dosage and timing of the administration of omega 3 fatty acids and to elucidate the molecular mechanisms by which omega 3 fatty acids impart their beneficial effect. Although their work is in its early stages, the researchers expect that the neuroprotective effect of omega 3 fatty acids will be molecularly multi-factorial, working as anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-apoptotic agent.
It was nearly three decades ago while studying a small Inuit village in Greenland that scientists realized that omega 3 fatty acids reduce the risk of heart disease. Since then researchers have discovered that omega 3 fatty acids possess potent disease-countering effects that apply to myriad diseases.
As I share each of these newfound discoveries with my grandmother I am often met with a look that says, “I told you so. Grandma always knows best.” This inevitably is followed by an insistence that I go and drink my cod liver oil this very instant. As a scientist I am unable to refute the data that support my grandmother’s claims, but, more importantly, I am unable to deny my grandmother’s all knowing stare. As such, it appears I have no choice but to hold my nose and drink up in the name of good health.