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Function of dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids in the nervous system.

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INSERM Unité 26, Hôpital Fernand Widal, Paris, France.


The brain is the organ with the second greatest concentration of lipids; they are directly involved in the functioning of membranes. Brain development is genetically programmed; it is therefore necessary to ensure that nerve cells receive an adequate supply of lipids during their differentiation and multiplication. Indeed the effects of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) deficiency have been extensively studied; prolonged deficiency leads to death in animals. Linoleic acid (LA) is now universally recognized to be an essential nutrient. On the other hand, alpha-linolenic acid (ALNA) was considered non-essential until recently, and its role needs further studies. In our experiments, feeding animals with oils that have a low alpha-linolenic content results in all brain cells and organelles and various organs in reduced amounts of 22:6(n-3), compensated by an increase in 22:5(n-6). The speed of recuperation from these anomalies is extremely slow for brain cells, organelles and microvessels, in contrast with other organs. A decrease in alpha-linolenic series acids in the membranes results in a 40% reduction in the Na-K-ATPase of nerve terminals and a 20% reduction in 5'-nucleotidase. Some other enzymatic activities are not affected, although membrane fluidity is altered. A diet low in ALNA induces alterations in the electroretinogram which disappear with age: motor function and activity are little affected but learning behaviour is markedly altered. The presence of ALNA in the diet confers a greater resistance to certain neurotoxic agents, i.e. triethyl-lead. We have shown that during the period of cerebral development, there is a linear relationship between brain content of (n-3) acids and the (n-3) content of the diet up to the point where alpha-linolenic levels reach 200 mg for 100 g food intake. Beyond that level there is a plateau. For the other organs, such as the liver, the relationship is also linear up to 200 mg/100 g, but then there is merely an abrupt change in slope and not a plateau. By varying the dietary 18:2(n-6) content, it was noted that 20:4(n-6) optimum values were obtained at 150 mg/100 g for all nerve structures, at 300 mg for testicle and muscle, 800 mg for the kidney, and 1200 mg for the liver, lung and heart. A deficiency in ALNA or an excess of LA has the same main effect: an increase in 22:5(n-6) levels.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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