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Behav Neurosci. 2009 Feb;123(1):196-205. doi: 10.1037/a0013801.

An n-3 fatty acid deficiency impairs rat spatial learning in the Barnes maze.

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  • 1Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics, Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), Rockville, Maryland, USA.


In this study, the authors demonstrate that rats with n-3 fatty acid deficiency display spatial learning deficits in the Barnes circular maze. Dams were deprived of n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation, and their offspring were weaned to the same deficient diet. There was a 58% loss of brain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the n-3 fatty acid-deficient rats in comparison to n-3 fatty acid-adequate rats. At 8 weeks of age, deficient rats demonstrated moderate impairment in Barnes maze performance compared with the n-3 fatty acid-adequate rats during the initial training. In the reversal learning task, the n-3 fatty acid-deficient rats showed a profound deficit in performance: They required more time to find a new position of the escape tunnel, which was accompanied by a higher number of errors and perseverations. The n-3 fatty acid-deficient rats had reduced tissue levels of dopamine in the ventral striatum and enhanced levels of the metabolite 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid in frontal cortex and hypothalamus. In summary, this study demonstrates that rats with low brain DHA have a deficit in spatial reversal learning that could be related to changes in dopamine transmission in critical brain circuits.

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