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Pediatr Neurol. 2002 Mar;26(3):210-8.

Decrease in neuron size in docosahexaenoic acid-deficient brain.

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  • 1Section of Nutritional Neuroscience, Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry & Biophysics, Division of Intramural Clinical and Biological Research, National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, USA.


Docosahexaenoic acid is an important fatty acid for neuronal function because its deficiency leads to many behavioral and functional deficits. In a previous study, we reported that docosahexaenoic acid deficiency caused a reduction in the size of neurons of the CA1 region in the hippocampus. To extend these results to other regions of the brain, the present study entailed a morphologic analysis of neuronal size in hippocampus, hypothalamus, piriform cortex, and parietal cortex in rats that were raised on docosahexaenoic acid-deficient and supplemented diets for three generations. Neuron size in these regions was measured both at weaning (21 days) and maturity (68 days), and docosahexaenoic acid content in the brain was measured on a separate set of sibling rats using fatty acid analysis. Neuron size in hippocampus, hypothalamus, and parietal cortex decreased in weanling and in piriform cortex in mature rats raised on the docosahexaenoic acid-deficient diet. The brains of these rats exhibited a nearly 90% decrease of docosahexaenoic acid. Decrease of neuron size has been linked to a loss of optimal function in neurons. In the United States, human infant-milk formulas use vegetable oils as fat sources that lack docosahexaenoic acid. If docosahexaenoic acid deficiency reduces neuron size, then human infants raised on these formulas may also have smaller neurons relative to breast-fed infants.

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