Science & Technology: Omega-3s Boost Gray Matter

Issue Date: 
March 19, 2007

Pitt findings may explain why consuming fatty acids found in some fish seems to improve mood

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like salmon, are associated with increased gray matter volume in areas of the brain commonly linked to mood and behavior, according to a Pitt study.

The findings were presented March 7 by Sarah M. Conklin, a postdoctoral scholar in the Pitt psychiatry department’s Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine Program, during the American Psychosomatic Society’s Annual Meeting in Budapest, Hungary.

Animal research has shown that raising omega-3 intake leads to structural brain changes. In a study presented by Conklin at the society’s meeting last year, Pitt researchers reported that people with lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were more likely to have a negative outlook and be more impulsive. Conversely, those with higher blood levels of omega-3s were found to be more agreeable and less likely to report mild or moderate symptoms of depression.

In the study presented March 7, Pitt researchers sought to investigate whether gray matter volume was proportionally related to long-chain omega-3 intake in humans, especially in areas of the brain related to mood, helping to explain the mechanisms behind the improvement in mood often associated with long-chain omega-3 intake.

Researchers interviewed 55 healthy adult participants to determine their average intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Gray matter volume was evaluated using high-resolution structural MRI.

The researchers discovered that participants with high levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake had higher volumes of gray matter in areas of the brain associated with emotional arousal and regulation.

While this finding suggests that omega-3s may promote structural improvement in areas of the brain related to mood and emotion regulation—the same areas where gray matter is reduced in people with mood disorders such as major depressive disorder—investigators note that more research is needed to determine whether fish consumption actually causes changes in the brain.