Monkeys dining on food rich in omega-3 fatty acids were found to have brains with highly connected and well organized neural networks, while monkeys deficient in the fatty acids had much more limited brain networking, according to an Oregon Health & Science University study.

The study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Neuroscience, is the first time scientists have been able to use functional brain imaging in live animals to observe the large-scale interaction of multiple brain networks.

"The data shows the benefits in how the monkeys' brains organize over their lifetime if in the setting of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids," said Damien Fair, the senior author and assistant professor of both behavioral neuroscience and psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine, in a press release announcing the research. "The data also shows in detail how similar the networks in a monkey brain are to networks in a human brain, but only in the context of a diet rich in omega-3-fatty acids."

Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient for the human body that the body can't produce itself. They must be consumed through food.

The study measured a kind of omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, which is a primary component of the human brain and important in development of the brain and vision. DHA is found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. Past research by a co-author on the paper, Martha Neuringer, showed the importance of DHA for infants' visual development - a finding that led to the addition of DHA to infant formulas.

The scientists studied a group of older rhesus macaque monkeys that had been fed a lifelong diet that was either low or high in omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA. The monkeys that consumed a high-DHA diet had strong connectivity of early visual pathways in their brains, as well as greater connections within brain networks that are similar to those found in the human brain, such as higher-level processing and cognition, said David Grayson, a former research assistant in Fair's lab and first author on the paper.

"For example, we could see activity and connections within areas of the macaque brain that are important in the human brain for attention," said Fair.

With new monitoring capabilities, Fair said, the next step will be to analyze whether the monkeys with deficits have behavioral patterns that are similar to humans with certain neurological or psychiatric conditions - including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and autism.

Fair, who is a leader in using the same kind of brain imaging to explore neural networks in children with ADHD and autism, said he hopes to use these techniques to link research in humans and animals in order to better characterize, treat and prevent developmental mental health issues.

"It would be important to see how a diet high in omega-3s might affect brain development early on in their lives, and across their lifespan," Fair said.

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