Posts Tagged brain development
Are Omega-3s Important for Brain Healing?
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, DHA, and EPA.
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), found in flax seeds, walnuts, and chia seeds, cannot be synthesized in the body and therefore must be consumed in the diet. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are almost exclusively found in fish.
DHA and EPA have been shown to play a crucial role in brain development. They are involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and functioning. DHA is necessary for the functional maturation of the retina and visual cortex . Infants of mothers who supplemented with DHA had higher mental processing scores, hand-eye coordination, and psychomotor development .
Omega-3 supplementation has been shown to improve cognitive functioning in the mature brain as well. Studies have correlated accelerated cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment with low tissue levels of DHA and EPA . Additionally, omega-3 consumption is associated with a decreased risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease .
To be completely transparent, there isn’t much research on the use of omega-3s to aid brain healing after a TBI or stroke. However, there is evidence testifying to the crucial role of omega-3s in brain development and linking DHA and EPA to improved cognitive performance. To me this evidence makes a strong case for the use of omega-3s in a brain recovery program.
Top 5 Reasons to use Omega-3’s for Brain Healing
DHA is proven essential to brain development
DHA is required for the development of the sensory, perceptual, cognitive, and motor neural systems during fetal and childhood brain growth. Specifically, DHA is vital for the neuronal formation of axons and dendritic extensions and for proper synaptic functioning. EPA’s importance for the brain’s development is unclear, but colostrum and breast milk do contain EPA. Omega-3 deficiencies during development have been linked to deficits in retinal structure, visual acuity development, and cognitive performance .
Has been shown to reduce aggression
I was pleasantly surprised by this benefit. The mechanism by which it works is unknown, but several double-blind studies have shown decreased physical aggression and impulsivity after omega-3 supplementation. DHA in particular has been shown to help prevent aggression resulting from mental stress .
Linked to improved cognitive performance
Researchers have concluded that DHA and EPA supplementation can improve higher brain functions – sense of wellbeing, reactivity, attention, cognitive performance, and mood. Additionally, omega-3s have been shown to decrease cognitive decline and lower dementia risk .
Beneficial for affective disorders
Affective disorders that respond to DHA/EPA include major depressive disorder, manic depression, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder. EPA seems to provide the most benefit when it comes to decreasing depression and managing mood .
EPA reverses cellular inflammation, including inflammation in the brain. The primary mediators of inflammation in the body are derived from arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. When omega-3 consumption is increased, EPA blocks the production of these pro-inflammatory mediators .
What is the Best Source of Omega-3s?
For ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) I would suggest simply adding a daily tablespoon of ground flax seed to your diet.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are almost exclusively found in fish. While DHA and EPA can be synthesized from ALA in the body, the conversion rate is very low – it’s thought to be around 1% of the total intake of ALA.
Seaweed and microalgae are the only plant sources of DHA and EPA. However, they are found in very low concentrations. While a healthy individual may get by on a plant based omega-3 supplement, it would be very difficult consume the high quantities recommended after a brain injury.
For high doses of EPA and DHA, go with a good quality, highly purified fish oil. For more information on choosing a good quality fish oil see: Choosing the Best Fish Oil Supplement for Brain Health.
But isn’t Fish Oil a Blood Thinner?
I think Dr. Lewis addresses this concern best,
“There is a theoretical risk that high dose omega‐3s may cause bleeding or stroke. Biochemical pathways tell us this is a valid concern. However, not a single study in the scientific literature has shown this to be of any clinical significance.” 
I personally believe that the benefits of fish oil outweigh the risks. I would however recommend that you discuss it with your doctor before using high doses of fish oil, especially if you are on a prescription blood thinner. Do your own research first so that you are prepared to discuss the pros and cons with them (even doctors don’t know everything).
How much Fish Oil should You Take?
Currently there is not a set recommendation for daily intake of DHA/EPA for brain function. For healthy individuals, I have seen recommendations ranging from 0.5 grams up to 5 grams. In individuals with brain injury, most of the existing literature suggests much higher doses are needed. Here is the information that I have found relating to dosage:
Week 1 – Take 3 g of EPA + DHA 3 times a day for a total of 9 g per day.
Week 2 – Take 3 g of EPA + DHA 2 times a day for a total of 6 g per day.
Maintenance dose – Take 3 g of EPA + DHA once a day.
Dr. Lewis suggests starting at an even higher dose and maintaining it for longer if the brain injury is severe. If you explore his website a bit, you will find that he has lots of good information regarding fish oil and brain injury. I particularly liked this article: High Dose Omega-3s in Severe Brain Injury.
Dr. Sears doesn’t lay out an exact protocol, but he does recommend using 10 – 15 grams of EPA + DHA per day.
How soon should You see Results?
While I have read testimonies of people seeing almost immediate results, this seems to be the exception not the rule. You should begin to see results within 2 months, but it could take up to 3 months.
It took around 3 months for us to really start seeing improvements with my dad.
Which Supplement should You use?
Since you will be taking high doses, it is vital that you take a high quality supplement.
I have found both Nordic Naturals* and NutriGold* to be very good brands. There are many other brands available though, just make sure the one you choose is third party tested. For more information on choosing a brand read: Choosing the Best Fish Oil Supplement for Brain Health.
* Links denoted with an * are affiliate links. I will receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you purchase something through the one of these links. For my full disclosure click here. Thank you for your support!
by Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD | January 15, 2018
It is often said that we are what we eat. The food we eat is used not only to fuel our body, but also to build it. This applies to the brain as well. Food choices can influence our brain functions in both positive and negative ways. The right food may enhance brain functioning and ameliorate the cognitive decline associated with aging. In addition, some foods can improve our emotional status and prevent conditions like depression.
Lipids are good for brain—myth or reality?
It is a fact that some lipids, including unsaturated fatty acids, are necessary for brain developmentand functioning. This is not surprising if we consider that the brain is the second richest organ in lipids. Approximately 50–60% of the brain is made of lipids. But not all the fatty acids are equally good for the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring) and seafood are essential for the brain. These fatty acids constitute brain cell membranes. Also, they are main compounds of myelin, a fatty coat that insulates neurons (brain and ensures transmission of signals.
Omega-3 fats play vital functions in improving cognitive functions, providing proper neuronal communication and securing adequate attention. Interestingly, consumption of just one fish meal per weak is believed to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 60%. Human clinical trials showed that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids might improve mood, cooperation and cognitive score in subjects with dementia. Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important for neonatal development as well. A deficit in these fats in pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as in early childhood, may lead to conditions like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Polyunsaturated (omega-3) and monounsaturated fatty acids also regulate the brain’s dopamine system. This is how they improve levels of dopamine and serotonin—the chemicals that make us feel happy. This is why diets with high fish consumption are associated with a low prevalence of depression. Cross-national analyses declared Japan as a country with the highest fish intake on the one hand and the lowest depression score on the other.
Apart from fish meals, walnuts (and nuts in general) are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. They contain essential alpha-linolenic fatty acids that cannot be synthesized inside our body and need to be obtained from our diet. Flaxseed and flaxseed oils are other valuable sources of this fatty acid. In addition to omega-3 fats, walnuts contain potential brain antioxidants—vitamin E and polyphenols.
Olive oil is an especially rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids, with oleic acid as the main representative. Like omega-3, monounsaturated fatty acids help to improve cognitive functions and prevent age-related cognitive decline. These fats are also found in avocados. This is why avocado is commonly labeled as a brain superfood. It is assumed that eating just a quarter or half of a avocado daily can help maintain brain health.
Antioxidants: food for thought
Brain membranes are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids that are highly susceptible to oxidation. The oxidation of fatty acids leads to changes in membrane structure that can jeopardize brain functioning. When fatty acids are oxidized, membranes are damaged or even ruptured. This makes the intake of nutrients into brain cells quite difficult. The lack of nutrients stops normal functions of brain cells and eventually causes their death.
Oxidation of brain lipids occurs when the production of free radicals is greater than their removal by antioxidants present in the body. Thus, the adequate intake of antioxidants can prevent oxidation of brain lipids and slow down the loss of brain functions. This is why berries and fruits with high antioxidant potential are often recommended as good foods for the brain. Some findings suggest that high intake of blueberries and strawberries can halt the onset of age-related cognitive decline by up to 2.5 years. What makes berries powerful antioxidants is the presence of polyphenols, chemicals that give color to these fruits. Berries can decrease aging-related vulnerability to oxidative stress. These decrease further manifests with improvements in behavior. Human trials in people with mild cognitive impairments suggested the positive impact of berries on verbal memory performance. Apart from combating oxidative stress in the brain, polyphenols can also improve microcirculation. By enhancing blood flow, polyphenols help the proper nourishment of the brain that is important for its functioning.
Another food rich in polyphenols (more precisely epicatechin) that is believed to enhance cognition is dark chocolate. It is assumed that by decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation, dark chocolate improves memory and confers neuroprotection. Still, human trials are required to establish if dark chocolate can be considered as a brain superfood.
Curcuminoids are phenolic compounds from turmeric (popular curry spice) that can enhance memory and protect from neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s. Although this opinion is mostly based on animal studies, it is likely that prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in India is very low due to the common consumption of curry.
A diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, such as polyphenols and their subclass flavonoids, is assumed to suppress the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. One of the foods containing all of these components is spinach. Spinach, like other leafy green vegetables, contains folic acid and vitamin K that are believed to help keep the brain sharp. Although vitamin K is important for producing myelin, the substance that insulates neurons, the effects of dietary vitamin K supplementation on the function of brain myelin have not been tested so far.
Other cognitive enhancers
Another possible brain stimulator representing one of the most popular drinks worldwide is tea. An interesting study in Chinese adults tracked the association between tea consumption and cognitive decline. The higher tea intake was associated with lower prevalence of cognitive impairments, suggesting that regular tea consumption may slow down cognitive decline. Interestingly, the association was most evident for black tea. The same study showed no association between coffee intake and cognitive status.
Extracts from herb Ginkgo biloba have been traditionally used for memory and concentration problems, but also for dealing with depression and anxiety. A recent meta-analysis found no impact of ginkgo on cognitive functions in healthy subjects, suggesting that the effects of Ginko may be rather minor. Nonetheless, some earlier studies showed that ginkgo together with ginseng may acutely enhance memory in a dose-dependent manner. Unlike ginkgo, human trials with ginseng showed that its consumption can improve working memory performance and mood in terms of calmness.
Although further clinical trials are needed to confirm the cognitive enhancement by many foods, it is evident that diet represents a promising tool for maintaining and improving brain health.
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Discovery brings with it possible implications for brain regeneration –
In a cross-domain study directed by professor Peter Carmeliet (VIB – KU Leuven), researchers discovered unexpected cells in the protective membranes that enclose the brain, the so called meninges. These ‘neural progenitors’ (stem cells that differentiate into different kinds of neurons) are produced during embryonic development.
These findings show that the neural progenitors found in the meninges produce new neurons after birth, highlighting the importance of meningeal tissue as well as these cells’ potential in the development of new therapies for brain damage or neurodegeneration. A paper highlighting the results is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
Scientists’ understanding of brain plasticity, or the ability of the brain to grow, develop, recover from injuries and adapt to changing conditions throughout our lives, has been greatly broadened in recent years. Before the discoveries of the last few decades, neurologists once thought that the brain became ‘static’ after childhood. This dogma has changed, with researchers finding more and more evidence that the brain is capable of healing and regenerating in adulthood, thanks to the presence of stem cells. However, neuronal stem cells were generally believed to only reside within the brain tissue, not in the membranes surrounding it.
The meninges: unappreciated no more
Believed in the past to serve a mainly protective function to dampen mechanical shocks, the meninges have been historically underappreciated by science as having neurological importance in its own right. The data gathered by the team challenges the current idea that neural precursors—or stem cells that give rise to neurons—can only be found inside actual brain tissue.
Prof. Peter Carmeliet notes: “The neuronal stems cells that we discovered inside the meninges differentiate to full neurons, electrically-active and functionally integrated into the neuronal circuit. To show that the stem cells reside in the meninges, we used the extremely powerful single-cell RNA sequencing technique, a very novel top-notch technique, capable of identifying the [complex gene expression signature] nature of individual cells in a previously unsurpassed manner, a première at VIB.”
Following up on future research avenues
When it comes to future leads for this discovery, the scientists also see possibilities for translation into clinical application, though future work is required.
“An intriguing question is whether these neuronal stem cells in the meninges could lead to better therapies for brain damage or neurodegeneration. However, answering this question would require a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms that regulate the differentiation of these stem cells,” says Carmeliet. “How are these meningeal stem cells activated to become different kinds of neurons? Can we therapeutically ‘hijack’ their regeneration potential to restore dying neurons in, for example, Alzheimer’ Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and other neurodegenerative disorders? Also, can we isolate these neurogenic progenitors from the meninges at birth and use them for later transplantation? These findings open up very exciting research opportunities for the future.”
Moving into unchartered territory is high risk, and can offer high gain, but securing funding for such type of research is challenging. However, Carmeliet’s discoveries were made possible to a large extent by funding through “Opening the Future: pioneering without boundaries”, a recently created Mecenas Funding Campaign for funding of high risk brain research but with potential for breakthrough discoveries, started up by the KU Leuven in 2013 and unique in Flanders.
“Being able to use such non-conventional funding channels is of utmost importance to break new boundaries in research,” says Carmeliet. “This unique Mecenas funding initiative by the KU Leuven is innovative and boundary-breaking by itself. Our entire team is enormously grateful for the opportunities it has created for our investigations”.
Note: Material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.
Bifari F et al. Neurogenic Radial Glia-like Cells in Meninges Migrate and Differentiate into Functionally Integrated Neurons in the Neonatal Cortex. Cell Stem Cell, Published Online November 23 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.stem.2016.10.020