The role of essential fatty acids in development

Annu Rev Nutr. 2005;25:549-71. doi: 10.1146/annurev.nutr.24.012003.132254.


The presence of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) in human milk but not in infant formula, coupled with lower plasma and brain lipid contents of DHA in formula-fed than in breast-fed infants and reports of higher IQ in individuals who were breast-fed versus formula-fed as infants, suggest that exogenous DHA (and ARA) may be essential for optimal development. Thus, since 1990, several studies have examined the impact of formulas containing DHA or DHA plus ARA on visual function and neurodevelopmental outcome. Some of these studies have shown benefits but others have not. These results leave largely unanswered the question of whether these fatty acids are beneficial for either the term or preterm infant. However, evidence that preterm infants might benefit is somewhat more convincing than that for term infants. Despite the limited evidence for efficacy, formulas supplemented with DHA and ARA are now available and appear to be safe.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arachidonic Acid / physiology
  • Behavior
  • Brain / physiology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Fatty Acids, Essential / physiology*
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / pharmacology
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / physiology
  • Female
  • Growth / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Milk, Human / chemistry
  • Vision, Ocular


  • Fatty Acids, Essential
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Arachidonic Acid