Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): an ancient nutrient for the modern human brain

Nutrients. 2011 May;3(5):529-54. doi: 10.3390/nu3050529. Epub 2011 May 10.


Modern humans have evolved with a staple source of preformed docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the diet. An important turning point in human evolution was the discovery of high-quality, easily digested nutrients from coastal seafood and inland freshwater sources. Multi-generational exploitation of seafood by shore-based dwellers coincided with the rapid expansion of grey matter in the cerebral cortex, which characterizes the modern human brain. The DHA molecule has unique structural properties that appear to provide optimal conditions for a wide range of cell membrane functions. This has particular implications for grey matter, which is membrane-rich tissue. An important metabolic role for DHA has recently been identified as the precursor for resolvins and protectins. The rudimentary source of DHA is marine algae; therefore it is found concentrated in fish and marine oils. Unlike the photosynthetic cells in algae and higher plants, mammalian cells lack the specific enzymes required for the de novo synthesis of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the precursor for all omega-3 fatty acid syntheses. Endogenous synthesis of DHA from ALA in humans is much lower and more limited than previously assumed. The excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids in the modern Western diet further displaces DHA from membrane phospholipids. An emerging body of research is exploring a unique role for DHA in neurodevelopment and the prevention of neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. DHA is increasingly being added back into the food supply as fish oil or algal oil supplementation.

Keywords: docosahexaenoic acid; DHA; algal oil; brain evolution; erythrocyte phospholipids; fish oil; n-3 fatty acids; nutritional supplementation; omega-3 fatty acids.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Diet*
  • Dietary Fats / metabolism*
  • Dietary Fats / therapeutic use
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / metabolism*
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / therapeutic use
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6 / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / prevention & control
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / prevention & control
  • Nutritional Requirements*
  • Phospholipids / chemistry*
  • alpha-Linolenic Acid / metabolism


  • Dietary Fats
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6
  • Phospholipids
  • alpha-Linolenic Acid
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids