Dietary essential fatty acids, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, and visual resolution acuity in healthy fullterm infants: a systematic review

Early Hum Dev. 2000 Mar;57(3):165-88. doi: 10.1016/s0378-3782(00)00050-5.


Background: Biologically active neural tissue is rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (LCPUFA). We conducted a systematic review to examine the nature of discordant results from studies designed to test the hypothesis that dietary DHA leads to better performance on visually-based tasks in healthy, fullterm infants. We also conducted a meta-analysis to derive combined estimates of behavioral- and electrophysiologic-based visual resolution acuity differences and sample sizes that would be useful in planning future research.

Study design and methods: Twelve empirical studies on LCPUFA intake during infancy and visual resolution acuity were identified through bibliographic searches, examination of monograph and review article reference lists, and written requests to researchers in the field. Works were reviewed for quality and completeness of information. Study design and conduct information was extracted with a standardized protocol. Acuity differences between groups consuming a source of DHA and groups consuming DHA-free diets were calculated as a common outcome from individual studies; this difference score was evaluated against a null value of zero and then used, with the method of DerSimonian and Laird (Meta-analysis in clinical trials. Control Clin Trials 1986;7:177-188), to derive combined estimates of visual resolution acuity differences within seven age categories. RESULTS OF RANDOMIZED COMPARISONS: The combined visual resolution acuity difference measured with behaviorally based methods between DHA-supplemented formula fed groups and DHA-free formula fed groups is 0.32+/-0.09 octaves (combined difference+/-S.E.M., P=0.0003) at 2 months of age. The direction of this value indicates higher acuity in DHA-fed groups. RESULTS OF NON-RANDOMIZED STUDY DESIGNS: The combined visual resolution acuity difference measured with behaviorally based methods between human milk fed groups and DHA-free formula fed groups is 0.49+/-0.09 octaves (P< or =0.000001) at 2 months of age and 0.18+/-0.08 octaves (P=0.04) at 4 months of age. Acuity differences for electrophysiologic-based measures are also greater than zero at 4 months (0.37+/-0.16 octaves, P=0.02).

Conclusion: Some aspect of dietary n-3 intake is associated with performance on visual resolution acuity tasks at 2, and possibly, 4 months of age in healthy fullterm infants. Whether n-3 intake confers lasting advantage in the development of visually based processes is still in question.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Bottle Feeding
  • Breast Feeding
  • Dietary Fats / metabolism*
  • Electrophysiology / methods
  • Fatty Acids, Essential / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Essential / physiology*
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Milk, Human / metabolism
  • Milk, Human / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Visual Acuity / physiology*


  • Dietary Fats
  • Fatty Acids, Essential
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3