Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh demonstrated that a diet containing low amounts of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to anxiety and hyperactivity in adolescents―especially in children of parents with similar diets. Led by Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Scientific Council Member and NARSAD Independent Investigator Grantee, Bita Moghaddam, Ph.D., the results of this study were recently published on July 29, 2013 in Biological Psychiatry.
The research team used animal models to examine the impact of "second generation" omega-3-deficient diets that may mimic present-day adolescents. Parents of many of today's teens were born in the 1960s and 1970s, a time period in which omega-3-deficient oils such as corn and soy became prevalent, and farm animals moved from eating grass to grain. Since omega-3s are present in grass and algae, much of today's grain-fed cattle contain less of these essential fatty acids. By giving rats a series of behavioral tests, researchers found that second-generation deficiencies of omega-3s caused elevated states of anxiety and hyperactivity and affected memory and cognition in the adolescent rats.
"We have always assumed that stress at this age is the main environmental insult that contributes to developing these conditions in at-risk individuals but this study indicates that nutrition is a big factor, too," said Dr. Moghaddam, Professor of Neuroscience in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. "We found that this dietary deficiency can compromise the behavioral health of adolescents, not only because their diet is deficient but because their parents' diet was deficient as well. This is of particular concern because adolescence is a very vulnerable time for developing psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia and addiction."
The team is now exploring how deficient nutrition, as an environmental insult, can impact the expression of genes (a field of study known as “epigenetics”). They are also exploring markers of inflammation in the brain since omega-3 deficiencies cause an increase of omega-6 fats, which are pro-inflammatory molecules in the brain and other tissues.
Other NARSAD Grantees participating in this research included Gonzalo Torres, Ph.D., and Stanley Rapoport, M.D.