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Prog Lipid Res. 2015 Jul;59:54-66. doi: 10.1016/j.plipres.2015.04.002. Epub 2015 Apr 25.

Is docosahexaenoic acid synthesis from α-linolenic acid sufficient to supply the adult brain?

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University of Toronto, Department of Nutritional Sciences, Canada.
University of Toronto, Department of Nutritional Sciences, Canada. Electronic address:


Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is important for brain function, and can be obtained directly from the diet or synthesized in the body from α-linolenic acid (ALA). Debate exists as to whether DHA synthesized from ALA can provide sufficient DHA for the adult brain, as measures of DHA synthesis from ingested ALA are typically <1% of the oral ALA dose. However, the primary fate of orally administered ALA is β-oxidation and long-term storage in adipose tissue, suggesting that DHA synthesis measures involving oral ALA tracer ingestion may underestimate total DHA synthesis. There is also evidence that DHA synthesized from ALA can meet brain DHA requirements, as animals fed ALA-only diets have brain DHA concentrations similar to DHA-fed animals, and the brain DHA requirement is estimated to be only 2.4-3.8 mg/day in humans. This review summarizes evidence that DHA synthesis from ALA can provide sufficient DHA for the adult brain by examining work in humans and animals involving estimates of DHA synthesis and brain DHA requirements. Also, an update on methods to measure DHA synthesis in humans is presented highlighting a novel approach involving steady-state infusion of stable isotope-labeled ALA that bypasses several limitations of oral tracer ingestion. It is shown that this method produces estimates of DHA synthesis that are at least 3-fold higher than brain uptake rates in rats.


ALA; Alpha-linolenic Acid; Brain; DHA; Docosahexaenoic acid; Liver; Metabolism; Requirement; Synthesis; Uptake

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