According to new research presented in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), DHA supplements may prevent mental retardation in preterm infant girls. Infants born before 33 weeks' gestation have a drastically increased risk of developmental disorders and learning disabilities, and it seems that DHA supplementation (docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid) may be a potential safety measure for infant girls. Preterm girls who received higher levels of DHA had higher measures of neurological development than preterm girls who had the normal amount of DHA. The girls with the high-DHA levels were 55% less likely to have a "mild mental delay" and 80% less likely to have "significant mental delay".
DHA has no harmful side effects, and passes naturally from mothers to their babies in the womb. Maria Makrides, author of the study, believes that preterm babies miss out on the benefits of DHA, which may help develop their brains during the final weeks of pregnancy.
A similiar safeguarding effect of neurological development has not yet been seen among preterm boys. In general, preterm boys have greater risks of complications than girls. Research of DHA and preterm births is just in its beginning stages, so it is difficult to posit any definitive conclusions. Thus far, research of this type has only been conducted with preterm infants, and so the overall effects that DHA may have on normal term infants are completely unknown.
"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," writes Makrides and her co-authors. Based on these initial findings, the site of the study, The Women's and Children' Hospital in Adelaide, Australia, is preparing to offer DHA-rich diets to its preterm patients.
To learn more about this issue, please have a look at the links below:
DSIB: Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
JAMA Abstract: Neurodevelopmental Outcomes of Preterm Infants
Science Daily: Fatty Acid Appears To Improve Neurodevelopment For Preterm Girls
USA Today: DHA supplements may help premature baby girls