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Docosahexaenoic acid

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Docosahexaenoic acid
IUPAC name
Other names cervonic acid, DHA
CAS number 6217-54-5 Yes check.pngY
PubChem 445580
Simplified molecular input line entry specification
InChI Key
ChemSpider 393183
Chemical formula C22H32O2
Molar mass 328.488 g/mol
Density 0.943 g/cm3
Melting point

-44 °C, 229 K, -47 °F

Boiling point

446.7 °C, 720 K, 836 °F

 Yes check.pngY (what is this?)  (verify)
Except where noted otherwise, data are given for materials in their standard state (at 25 °C, 100 kPa)
Infobox references

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that is a primary structural component of the human brain, cerebral cortex, skin, sperm, testicles and retina. It can be synthesized from alpha-linolenic acid or obtained directly from maternal milk or fish oil.[1] DHA's structure is a carboxylic acid (-oic acid) with a 22-carbon chain (docosa- is Greek for 22) and six (hexa-) cis double bonds (-en-);[2] with the first double bond located at the third carbon from the omega end.[3] Its trivial name is cervonic acid, its systematic name is all-cis-docosa-4,7,10,13,16,19-hexa-enoic acid, and its shorthand name is 22:6(n-3) in the nomenclature of fatty acids.

Cold-water oceanic fish oils are rich in DHA. Most of the DHA in fish and multi-cellular organisms with access to cold-water oceanic foods originates from photosynthetic and heterotrophic microalgae, and becomes increasingly concentrated in organisms the further they are up the food chain. DHA is also commercially manufactured from microalgae; Crypthecodinium cohnii and another of the genus Schizochytrium.[4] DHA manufactured using microalgae is vegetarian.[4]

Some animals with access to seafood make very little DHA through metabolism, but obtain it in the diet. However, in strict herbivores, and carnivores that do not eat seafood, DHA is manufactured internally from α-linolenic acid, a shorter omega-3 fatty acid manufactured by plants (and also occurring in animal products as obtained from plants). Limited amounts of eicosapentaenoic and docosapentaenoic acids are possible products of α-linolenic acid metabolism in young women[5] and men,[6] and though DHA is difficult to detect above dietary background in males compared with females, this illustrates the importance of DHA production for the developing fetus and healthy breast milk.[7] Rates of conversion are 15% higher for women, with those taking oral contraceptives demonstrating 10% higher DHA levels.[8] Administration of testosterone or the aromatase inhibitor anastrozole, which blocks conversion of testosterone to estradiol, reduces DHA conversion.[8] DHA is a major fatty acid in sperm and brain phospholipids and in the retina. Dietary DHA may reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing the level of blood triglycerides in humans.[9] Below-normal levels of DHA have been associated with Alzheimer's disease. A low level of DHA is also spotted in patients with retinitis pigmentosa .

Central nervous system constituent

DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and retina. DHA comprises 40% of the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in the brain and 60% of the PUFAs in the retina. Fifty percent of the weight of a neuron's plasma membrane is composed of DHA.[10] DHA is richly supplied during breastfeeding, and DHA levels are high in breastmilk regardless of dietary choices.

DHA modulates the carrier-mediated transport of choline, glycine, and taurine, the function of delayed rectifier potassium channels, and the response of rhodopsin contained in the synaptic vesicles, among many other functions.[11]

DHA deficiency is associated with cognitive decline.[12] Phosphatidylserine (PS) controls apoptosis, and low DHA levels lower neural cell PS and increase neural cell death.[13] DHA levels are reduced in the brain tissue of severely depressed patients.[14][15]

Metabolic synthesis

In humans, DHA is either obtained from the diet or may be converted in small amounts from eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA, 20:5, ω-3) via docosapentaenoic acid (DPA, 22:5 ω-6) as an intermediate.[5][6] This synthesis had been thought to occur through an elongation step followed by the action of Δ4-desaturase.[6] It is now considered more likely that DHA is biosynthesized via a C24 intermediate followed by beta oxidation in peroxisomes. Thus, EPA is twice elongated, yielding 24:5 ω-3, then desaturated to 24:6 ω-3, then shortened to DHA (22:6 ω-3) via beta oxidation. This pathway is known as Sprecher's shunt.[16][17]

Potential health effects


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Several scientific papers have been trying to link ADHD to dietary behaviours. A systematic review of these scientific articles published between 1980 and 2012 was recently published (2013) on the relationship between ADHD and moderate doses of omega 3 fatty acids. Only a slight improvement was found, which was argued in the same review as a possible fruit of measurement error, due to differences in doses taken by the subject and difficulties on evaluating this disorder.[18]

Alzheimer's disease and decline of mental health

Preliminary studies indicated that DHA can slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease in mice,[19][20] sparking interest in additional research. However, the first large-scale human trials showed that DHA did not slow decline of mental function in elderly people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.[21] These trials were part of a large US National Institutes of Health (NIH) intervention study to evaluate DHA in Alzheimer's disease.[22]

Researchers from the National Institute on Aging-supported Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study conducted a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial comparing DHA and placebo over 18 months in 402 people (average age=76) diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer's at 51 sites. According to this study, treatment with DHA increased blood levels of DHA, and appeared to increase brain DHA levels, based on a measured increase of DHA in study participants' cerebrospinal fluid.

However, DHA treatment did not slow the rate of change on tests of mental function, global dementia severity status, activities of daily living, or behavioral symptoms in the study population as a whole. Treatment effects did not differ between the mild and moderate Alzheimer's patients, leading study authors to conclude that the results do not support the routine use of DHA for patients with Alzheimer's.

Animal studies in the TG3 transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease had linked dietary DHA to decreases in amyloid plaques and tau. Animal studies also showed, when DHA was combined with arachidonic acid (also present in fish oil), plaque formation was greater with the arachidonic acid compared to DHA alone.

DHA deficiency likely plays a role in decline of mental function in healthy adults, which is indicated in a study from 2010 conducted at 19 U.S. clinical sites on 485 subjects aged 55 and older who met criteria for age-associated memory impairment. The study found algal DHA taken for six months decreased heart rate and improved memory and learning in healthy, older adults with mild memory complaints. These findings indicate the importance of early DHA intervention and provided a statistically significant benefit to cognitive function in individuals over 50 years of age.[23] Higher DHA levels in middle-aged adults is related to better performance on tests of nonverbal reasoning and mental flexibility, working memory, and vocabulary.[24] DHA is the majority component of a Souvenaid, an oral supplement developed by MIT scientists that has been shown to modestly improve memory in subjects with early Alzheimer’s disease while showing insignificant benefits in other tests of cognitive function. The use of DHA by persons with epilepsy could decrease the frequency of their seizures. Studies have shown that children with epilepsy had a major improvement, i.e. decrease in the frequency of their seizures, but another study showed mixed results with 57 adults taking DHA supplementation. The 57 subjects demonstrated a decreased frequency of seizures for the first six weeks of the study, but for some it was just a temporary improvement. Studies are increasing on the link between DHA supplementation and epilepsy.


In mice, DHA was found to inhibit growth of human colon carcinoma cells,[25][26] more than other omega-3 PUFAs. The cytotoxic effect of DHA was not caused by increased lipid peroxidation or any other oxidative damage, but rather a decrease in cell growth regulators. However, different cancer lines may handle PUFAs differently and display different sensitivities toward them.[citation needed]

DHA was shown to increase the efficacy of chemotherapy in prostate cancer cells in vitro,[27] and a chemoprotective effect in a mouse model was reported.[28] By contrast, one case-control study nested within a clinical trial originally designed to test the effect of finasteride on prostate cancer occurrence, the "Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial", found that DHA measured in blood serum was associated with an increase in high-grade prostate cancer risk.[29] In addition to DHA's possible anticancer effect, it may also be used as a non-toxic adjuvant to increase the efficacy of chemotherapy.[30]

Pregnancy and lactation

DHA concentrations in breast milk range from 0.07% to greater than 1.0% of total fatty acids, with a mean of about 0.34%. DHA levels in breast milk are higher if a mother's diet is high in fish. The Food and Drug Administration has noted specific concerns for women who are pregnant or might become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children regarding mercury levels in fish and shellfish.[31]

DHA has recently gained attention as a supplement for pregnant women, noting studies of improved attention and visual acuity. Given the recently gained attention, the majority of pregnant women in the U.S. fail to get the recommended amount of DHA in their diets.[32] Template:Citation needed span A working group from the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids recommended 300 mg/day of DHA for pregnant and lactating women, whereas the average consumption was between 45 mg and 115 mg per day of the women in the study. The March of Dimes Foundation recommends pregnant women consume at least 200 mg DHA per day.[33] Other requirements are available from other sources.[34]

Docosahexaenoic acid single-cell oil (DHASCO)[35][36] has been an ingredient in several brands of premium infant formula sold in North America since 2001 after Mead Johnson, the first infant formula manufacturer to add DHASCO and arachidonic acid single-cell organism oil to its Enfamil Lipil product, received a "Generally Regarded As Safe" status by the Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada. Several past and recent studies indicate supplementation with arachidonic acid (omega-6) may be unsuitable for some infants and toddlers as it may potentiate the inflammatory response.[37]

DHASCO does not make infant formulas more like human milk than "conventional" formula containing alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid, which are precursors to DHA. Formula sold in North America uses lipids from microorganisms grown in bioreactors as sources of DHA.[4][38] Some doubt that DHA additives benefit brain development of term infants, as formula makers claim in their advertisements, which has led some public interest groups to file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission of the United States, alleging false and misleading advertising.[39] There is some obvious debate about the safety of single cell DHA and AA as compared to natural sources, but original studies on the increase of the Mental Development Index were based on single cell DHA and AA added to preformed Enfamil.[40] The following is a good review of that study: "The study tested the intelligence scores of 56 infants, 18 months old. One group received formula containing only DHA, while another received one containing DHA and AA. The control group's commercial formula did not contain either substance. All three groups of infants were enrolled in the study within five days of their birth, and for 17 weeks received one of the three formulas.

When the children's overall intelligence was tested, they differed significantly on the Mental Development Index (MDI) that measures young children's memory, their ability to solve simple problems, and their language capabilities.

The children in the control group received an average MDI score of 98 – slightly below the national average of 100 for U.S. children. The DHA group received an average score of 102.4, and the DHA plus AA group received an average score of 105." [41]

A study[42] found that preterm infants fed baby formulas fortified with DHASCO provided better developmental outcomes than formulas not containing the supplement.

A study sponsored by March of Dimes and National Institutes of Health suggests that women who take DHA supplements during pregnancy give their babies some degree of added protection against getting common colds.[43] The babies whose mothers had taken DHA supplements seemed to get over cold symptoms faster when they did get sick.

Current research

Although most studies demonstrate positive effects of dietary DHA on human health, contrary results exist. For example, one study[44] found that the use of DHA-rich fish oil capsules did not reduce postpartum depression in mothers or improve cognitive and language development in their offspring during early childhood (though this is not a negative effect, only shows no effect).

Additional studies confirmed DHA benefits for other nervous system functions, cardiovascular health, and potentially other organs. In one study, men who took DHA supplements for 6–12 weeks decreased the concentrations of several inflammatory markers in their blood by approximately 20%.[45] Higher intakes of DHA and EPA may reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.[46] A new study found that higher intake of DHA was associated with slower rates of telomere shortening, which is a basic DNA-level marker of aging.[47] Preliminary studies showed that a high intake of DHA was associated with reduced risk for developing Alzheimer's disease[48] and reduced symptoms of Parkinson's disease[49] consistent with DHA being the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain. It is now considered so important to brain and eye development that DHA is included in most infant formulas.[50] Lastly, in preliminary research, it was found that a diet rich in DHA might protect stroke victims from brain damage and disability and aid in a speedier recovery.[51]
According to a new study, DHA is very likely important in the formation of the acrosome, an arc-like structure on the top of sperm, which is critical in fertilization because it houses a variety of enzymes that sperm use to penetrate an egg.[52] Because humans and other mammals are able to make their own DHA from other fatty acids, DHA deficiency is not common. But, if that DHA-synthesizing enzyme is defective, it could lead to problems with infertility.[53]

Researchers in Norway are testing a treatment for psoriasis with a synthesised molecule based on DHA.[54]


Ordinary types of cooked salmon contain 500–1500 mg DHA and 300–1000 mg EPA per 100 grams.[55] Additional top fish sources of DHA include tuna, bluefish, mackerel, swordfish, anchovies, herring, sardines, and caviar.

Diets that consist of high doses of omega-3 fatty acids help prevent strokes. There are fewer strokes in countries where people consume high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, such as Japan and Sweden.

Discovery of algae-based DHA

In the early 1980s, NASA sponsored scientific research in search of a plant-based food source that could generate oxygen and nutrition on long-duration space flights. The researchers discovered that certain species of marine algae produced rich nutrients. This research led to the development of an algae-based, vegetable-like oil that contains two essential polyunsaturated fatty acids, DHA and ARA (arachidonic acid),[56] which can now be found in health supplements.[57]

Use as a food additive

DHA is widely used as a food supplement. It was first used primarily in infant formulas.[58] In 2004, the US Food and Drug Administration endorsed qualified health claims for DHA,[59] and by 2007 DHA-fortified dairy items (milk, yogurt, cooking oil) started to appear in grocery stores.

DHA is believed to be helpful to people with a history of heart disease, for premature infants, and to support healthy brain development especially in young children along with supporting retinal development. Some manufactured DHA is a vegetarian product extracted from algae, and it competes on the market with fish oil that contains DHA and other omega-3's such as EPA. Both fish oil and DHA are odorless and tasteless after processing as a food additive.[60]

Studies of vegetarians and vegans

Vegetarian diets typically contain limited amounts of DHA, and vegan diets typically contain no DHA. Vegetarians and vegans have substantially lower levels of DHA in their bodies, and short-term supplemental ALA has been shown to increase EPA, but not DHA. However, supplemental preformed DHA, available in algae-derived oils or capsules, has been shown to increase DHA levels. While there is little evidence of adverse health or cognitive effects due to DHA deficiency in adult vegetarians or vegans, fetal and breast milk levels remain a concern.[61]

DHA and EPA in fish oils

Fish oil is widely sold in gelatin capsules containing a mixture of omega-3 fatty acids including EPA and smaller quantities of DHA. One study found fish oil higher in DHA than EPA lowered inflammatory cytokines, such as IL-6 and IL-1β, associated with neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases. They note the brain normally contains DHA, but not EPA, though both DHA and EPA plasma concentrations increased significantly for participants.[62]

Hypothesized role in human evolution

An abundance of DHA in seafood has been suggested as being helpful in the development of a large brain,[63] though other researchers claim a terrestrial diet could also have provided the necessary DHA.[64]

See also


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External links

Template:Fatty acids