Foods for Thought

After following children whose diet was supplemented with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) as infants, researchers at the University of Kansas have found significant benefits for early childhood development.

For more than 20 years, Susan Carlson and John Colombo have studied the dietary effects of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid on cognitive development. Although scientists have long suspected benefits from infant formulas enriched with DHA and ARA, proof has been complicated and time consuming.

Their most recent results find that infants fed enriched formula score significantly better when tested later on measures commonly used to assess childhood intelligence. Although the children fed enriched formula didn’t perform better than control groups on tests of language and performance at 18 months, those children showed significant positive effects when tested between three and five years.

“There’s nothing equivalent to this study in the literature in terms of number and frequency of cognitive tests measured on the same cohort of infants,” says Carlson, A. J. Rice Professor of Dietetics and Nutrition at the KU Medical Center.

Colombo, director of the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies, designed the cognitive outcomes for the study; Carlson was involved in the design of the nutritional intervention. They set out to find what effects, if any, fatty acids had on the development of specific complex cognitive abilities in childhood, such as rule learning and flexibility in reasoning. The findings from their study appear in the June 2013 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“There’s a lot of art to designing a trial,” Carlson says, pointing to the targeted outcomes chosen. 

Most of the studies in the literature were designed to measure standardized outcomes of a global nature, in part because these are the most readily accessible and do not require an interdisciplinary team of investigators. Unfortunately, these tests do not appear to be sensitive to the effects of DHA and ARA supplementation or the tests were done when children were too young.

Overall, Carlson credits the team’s success to their interdisciplinary approach. “Interdisciplinary collaboration means by definition that everyone on the team is listened to and has a say,” Carlson says of her coworkers. “I think we have a fantastic team. It takes a lot of work, dedication, and attention to detail to do a clinical trial, especially one that goes on for years.”  

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