DHA During Pregnancy Didn't Boost Kids' Brain Power

DHA prenatal supplements did not appear to improve child brain development

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Pregnant women are often encouraged to take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement called DHA in addition to prenatal vitamins. But does taking the extra supplement make a difference to the developing baby?

A recent study found that the extra DHA did not appear to affect children's brain development for better or worse at age 4.

DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid, and it's thought to enhance the brain development of the fetus.

However, this long-term study did not find any major difference between the cognitive skills of children whose mothers did or did not take DHA supplements during pregnancy.

"Ask your OB/GYN about supplements during pregnancy."

This study, led by Maria Makrides, PhD, of the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute in Adelaide, looked at whether DHA supplements during pregnancy improved the developing baby's later cognitive skills.

For the trial, the researchers divided the mothers of 726 children into two groups: one that received 800 mg per day of DHA and one that received a placebo, or fake pill.

Four years later, the researchers followed up with 646 of these children and tested their cognitive (brain) skills with a series of tests called Differential Ability Scales.

These tests provide a score, called the General Conceptual Ability score, ranging from 30 to 170. A child with delayed skills would score below an 85.

The researchers compared the scores of all the children, taking into account their mothers' education, smoking during pregnancy and number of previous children as well as the child's sex.

The researchers found no major difference between the average scores of the children, regardless of whether their mothers took DHA during pregnancy or not.

There was also not a higher percentage of children with delayed or advanced scores in either group.

None of the children in either group had hyperactivity disorders, and only two children in the DHA group and four in the placebo group had autism spectrum disorders.

The researchers also compared the children's scores in general cognition, language and overall executive functioning and found no difference among the kids.

Executive functioning refers to a group of overall brain skills that includes memory, planning, problem solving and related skills.

The children of the women who took DHA supplements had some lower scores on behavior and executive functioning when judged by their parents, but that was the only difference found between the groups and it was fairly small.

The researchers concluded, "Our data do not support prenatal DHA supplementation to enhance early childhood development."

This research letter was published May 3 in JAMA. The research was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, and the treatment and control capsules were donated by the company Efamol.

One author has served on advisory boards at Nestle, Fonterra and Nutricia, and another author has served on an advisory board at Fonterra.

Review Date: 
May 2, 2014
Last Updated:
May 5, 2014