Activation of WNT and CREB signaling pathways in human neuronal cells in response to the Omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Mol Cell Neurosci. 2019 Sep:99:103386. doi: 10.1016/j.mcn.2019.06.006. Epub 2019 Jun 14.


A subset of individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) elects treatment with complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs), including the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Previous studies in rodents suggest that DHA modulates neurodevelopmental processes, including adult neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, but the molecular and cellular mechanisms of DHA's potential therapeutic effect in the context of human neurobiology have not been well established. Here we sought to address this knowledge gap by investigating the effects of DHA using human iPSC-derived neural progenitor cells (NPCs) and post-mitotic neurons using pathway-selective reporter genes, multiplexed mRNA expression profiling, and a panel of metabolism-based viability assays. Finally, real-time, live-cell imaging was employed to monitor neurite outgrowth upon DHA treatment. Overall, these studies showed that DHA treatment (0-50 μM) significantly upregulated both WNT and CREB signaling pathways in human neuronal cells in a dose-dependent manner with 2- to 3-fold increases in pathway activation. Additionally, we observed that DHA treatment enhanced survival of iPSC-derived NPCs and differentiation of post-mitotic neurons with live-cell imaging, revealing increased neurite outgrowth with DHA treatment within 24 h. Taken together, this study provides evidence that DHA treatment activates critical pathways regulating neuroplasticity, which may contribute to enhanced neuronal cell viability and neuronal connectivity. The extent to which these pathways represent molecular mechanisms underlying the potential beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids in MDD and other brain disorders merits further investigation.

Keywords: Complementary and alternative medicine; Depression; Docosahexanoic acid; Neuroplasticity; Omega-3 fatty acid; iPSC-derived human neurons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line
  • Cyclic AMP Response Element-Binding Protein / metabolism*
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells / cytology
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells / drug effects
  • Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Neural Stem Cells / cytology
  • Neural Stem Cells / drug effects
  • Neural Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Neuronal Outgrowth
  • Wnt Signaling Pathway*


  • Cyclic AMP Response Element-Binding Protein
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids