The effects of omega-3 fatty acids on both infants and their mothers are the subject of a collaborative study by researchers from Emory University and the Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica (INSP) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The investigators are trying to determine whether omega-3 fatty acids can heighten infants' growth and development, while preventing post-partum depression in their mothers.
"We want to know the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids taken during pregnancy and look at ways nutritional interventions promote early childhood growth and development," says Usha Ramakrishnan, PhD, associate professor in the Hubert Department of Global Health in Emory's Rollins School of Public Health and principal investigator of the study. "Omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly linked to cardiovascular health, but research has also shown that omega-3 fatty acids are important to development, especially development of the nervous system," she says.
As part of an NIH and March of Dimes funded study, more than 1,000 women from Cuernavaca have received either a placebo or 400 mg per day of the omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), beginning halfway through their pregnancies and ending at delivery.
In the randomized, double-blind study, researchers will assess the infants' mental and motor development through 18 months of age by collecting and analyzing data on height, weight, head circumference and attention span, as well as neurological responses to visual and auditory stimuli. The researchers are also evaluating each mother's social support system and home environment.
Because previous research has shown that the consumption of DHA is associated with decreased rates of depression, Dr. Ramakrishnan says the study will also look at post-partum depression.
"We will measure postpartum depression in the mothers at 3, 6 and 12 months after birth. There is evidence that if a mother is depressed, she may provide less stimulation for her child, which could affect the child's development," says Ann DiGirolamo, PhD, MPH, Emory assistant professor of global health and a co-investigator of the study.
"I think the outcome on depression will be very important especially if we find that DHA consumption improves the mothers' quality of life," says Dr. Ramakrishnan. "We know from previous research that the maternal state of mind is very important in how she interacts with her child and thus for her child's development. Development is not just about hardwiring, so much of it is about the home environment, the caregiver's capabilities and the range of social support," she says.
Many of the investigators involved in this study are members of the advisory group for a project recently funded by the Emory Global Health Institute to strengthen and expand ties between Emory and INSP. The mission of INSP is to advance the health of Mexico's population through research, knowledge and innovation. The expanded partnership with Emory is aimed at creating long-term sustainable strategies for research, capacity building, training, and student exchange that will improve global health. Reynaldo Martorell, PhD, Woodruff Professor and chair, Hubert Department of Global Health in the Rollins School of Public Health, is leading the Emory-INSP project.
The Emory Global Health Institute was established to support and develop innovative research, training and programs that address the most pressing health challenges around the world.