Docosahexaenoic acid and human brain development: evidence that a dietary supply is needed for optimal development

J Hum Evol. 2014 Dec:77:99-106. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2014.02.017. Epub 2014 Apr 26.


Humans evolved a uniquely large brain among terrestrial mammals. Brain and nervous tissue is rich in the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Docosahexaenoic acid is required for lower and high order functions in humans because of understood and emerging molecular mechanisms. Among brain components that depend on dietary components, DHA is limiting because its synthesis from terrestrial plant food precursors is low but its utilization when consumed in diet is very efficient. Negligible DHA is found in terrestrial plants, but in contrast, DHA is plentiful at the shoreline where it is made by single-celled organisms and plants, and in the seas supports development of very large marine mammal brains. Modern human brains accumulate DHA up to age 18, most aggressively from about half-way through gestation to about two years of age. Studies in modern humans and non-human primates show that modern infants consuming infant formulas that include only DHA precursors have lower DHA levels than for those with a source of preformed DHA. Functional measures show that infants consuming preformed DHA have improved visual and cognitive function. Dietary preformed DHA in the breast milk of modern mothers supports many-fold greater breast milk DHA than is found in the breast milk of vegans, a phenomenon linked to consumption of shore-based foods. Most current evidence suggests that the DHA-rich human brain required an ample and sustained source of dietary DHA to reach its full potential.

Keywords: Brain composition; DHA; Evolution; Nutrition; Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids; PUFA; Shore-based food.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Diet
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / physiology*
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Humans


  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids