Docosahexaenoic acid: membrane properties of a unique fatty acid

Chem Phys Lipids. 2003 Nov;126(1):1-27. doi: 10.1016/s0009-3084(03)00101-4.


Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) with 22-carbons and 6 double bonds is the extreme example of an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA). DHA has strong medical implications since its dietary presence has been positively linked to the prevention of numerous human afflictions including cancer and heart disease. The PUFA, moreover, is essential to neurological function. It is remarkable that one simple molecule has been reported to affect so many seemingly unrelated biological processes. Although details of a molecular mode of action remain elusive, DHA must be acting at a fundamental level common to many tissues that is related to the high degree of conformational flexibility that the multiple double bonds have been identified to confer. One likely target for DHA action is at the cell membrane where the fatty acid is known to readily incorporate into membrane phospholipids. Once esterified into phospholipids DHA has been demonstrated to significantly alter many basic properties of membranes including acyl chain order and "fluidity", phase behavior, elastic compressibility, permeability, fusion, flip-flop and protein activity. It is concluded that DHA's interaction with other membrane lipids, particularly cholesterol, may play a prominent role in modulating the local structure and function of cell membranes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry
  • Cell Membrane / physiology
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Membrane Lipids / pharmacology
  • Membrane Lipids / physiology
  • Membrane Microdomains / chemistry


  • Membrane Lipids
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids