Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the parent essential fatty acid of the omega-3 family. This family includes docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which has been conserved in neural signaling systems in the cephalopods, fish, amphibian, reptiles, birds, mammals, primates, and humans. This extreme conservation, in spite of wide genomic changes of over 500 million years, testifies to the uniqueness of this molecule in the brain and affirms the importance of omega-3 fatty acids. While DHA and its close precursor, eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA), have received much attention by the research community, ALA, as the precursor of both, has been considered of little interest. There are many papers on ALA requirements in experimental animals. Unlike humans, rats and mice can readily convert ALA to EPA and DHA, so it is unclear whether the effect is solely due to the conversion products or to ALA itself. The intrinsic role of ALA has yet to be defined. This paper will discuss both recent and historical findings related to this distinctive group of fatty acids, and will highlight the physiological significance of the omega-3 family.
Keywords: Omega-3 fatty acids; alpha-linolenic acid; brain; docosahexaenoic acid.