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Placenta. 2005 Apr;26 Suppl A:S70-5.

Essential fatty acid transfer and fetal development.

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Department of Paediatrics, Nutrition Research Program, University of British Columbia, B.C. Research Institute for Maternal and Child Health, Room 179, 950 West 28th Avenue, Vancouver, BC V5Z 4H4, Canada.


Docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3) and arachidonic acid (20:4n-6) are important structural components of the central nervous system. These fatty acids are transferred across the placenta, and are accumulated in the brain and other organs during fetal development. Depletion of 22:6n-3 from the retina and brain results in reduced visual function and learning deficits: these may involve critical roles of 22:6n-3 in membrane-dependent signaling pathways and neurotransmitter metabolism. Transfer of 22:6n-3 across the placenta involves specific binding and transfer proteins that facilitate higher concentrations of 22:6n-3 and 20:4n-6, but lower linoleic acid (18:2n-6) in fetal compared with maternal plasma, or in the breast-fed or formula-fed infant. However, human and animal studies both demonstrate that maternal diet impacts fetal 22:6n-3 and 20:4n-6 accretion. After birth, parenteral lipid, human milk and infant formula feeding all result in a marked decrease in plasma 22:6n-3 and 20:4n-6 and an increase in 18:2n-6. Estimation of fetal tissue fatty acid accretion suggests that current preterm infant feeds are unlikely to meet in utero rates of 22:6n-3 accretion. Consideration needs to be given to whether fetal plasma 22:6n-3 and 20:4n-6 enrichment and the low 18:2n-6 facilitates accretion of 22:6n-3 and 20:4n-6 in developing tissues.

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