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Something Fishy? An exploration of the effects of fish oil on memory

Many studies show that fish oil may improve memory, though there are conflicting reports.

Calendars, day planners, iPods, sticky notes. Each of us has found our own way of storing notes and reminders from the steady flow of information buzzing around day in and day out. These notes are used as reminders for when our memory fails us, as it inevitably will.

Webster’s Dictionary has defined short term memory as “memory that involves recall of information for a relatively short time." College students are just one of many groups of individuals who rely heavily on this in order to get through their day. From time to time a magazine or newspaper article reports on mind games and mental tricks to sharpen your memory, but lately researchers have been leaning towards a nutritional route instead.

Fish oil for better memory
One nutrient spending some time in the limelight is fish oil, also known as omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oils, most often taken in through eating fish or taking supplements, have been looked at under a wide variety of scopes, from heart health to joint health, for nutritional benefits. More recently, researchers have aimed to understand its role in the brain, or cognitive function. One specific measure in this is short term memory.

Fish oil is considered to be a long chain fatty acid, comprised of α-linoleic acids (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It is possible in some humans for ALA to be converted to DHA and EPA, but humans unfortunately do not have that capability. This understanding has become the basis for the mounting interest in fish oils.

A look at the research
In a study done by the Journal of Nutrition (by Muldoon & Ryan et al), researchers looked at cheek cells in individuals for levels of ALA, EPA, and DHA, and correlated it with scores on a variety of tests including short term memory tests. The study found that those with higher levels of DHA (EPA and ALA were insignificant) were associated with higher scores in memory tests.

Another study done by Muthayya and Eilander, published in the America Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at giving children an omega-3 fatty acid supplement along with a micro-nutrient supplement. All groups in the test were given some level of the fatty acid. Interestingly, each supplement group saw an improvement in short term memory.

Now, before you throw out your day planner on your way to the market for a fish frenzy or delete the calendar app on your phone and set out to buy out the nearest nutrition supplement store, please take heart to the following considerations.
1. Studies are preliminary. Therefore, none of the information is reported as fact.
2. There have been conflicting studies. As in most cases, there are studies that do not support the success of fish oil supplements for short term memory. One study by Hirayama, Hamazaki, and Teresawa in 2004 did not see an improvement in short term memory. The population for this was, however, much smaller.
3. Understand the context. It is important to understand the context of the studies, their intended use, and that further research must be done. Individual studies show just a small corner of a far bigger picture. Far more work must be done to be able to scientifically draw a conclusion.

Other health benefits
Whether or not fish oils are effective in improving short term memory still remains to be seen. However the National Institute of Health does confirm its effectiveness in lowering blood triglycerides, which are associated with heart disease. Although you may or may not see changes in your ability to remember, there are other benefits of these omega-3 fatty acids, you may want to include fish on your next grocery run. Just don’t forget to write it down!

1. An Encyclopedia Britannica Company: Merriam Webster. Short Term Memory. Merriam Webster. Updated 2011. Accessed February 21, 2011.
2. Matthew F. Muldoon, Christopher M. Ryan, Lei Sheu, Jeffery K. Yao, Sarah M. Conklin, and Stephen B. Manuck. Serum Phospholipid Docosahexaenonic Acid is Associated with Cognitive Functioning during Middle Adulthood. The Journal of Nutrition. 2010; 140: 848-853. doi:10.3945/jn 109.119578
3. Muthayya S, Eilander E, and Transler C. Effect of fortification with multiple micronutrients and n-3 fatty acids on growth and cognitive performance in Indian schoolchildren: the CHAMPION (Children’s Health and Mental Performance Influenced by Optimal Nutrition) Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009; 89:1766-75.
4. A Hirayama, T Hamazaki, and K Teresawa. Effect of docosahexaenoic acid-containing food administration on symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder—a placebo-controlled double-blind study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2004; 58: 467-473.
5. National Institute of Health. Fish Oil. Medline Plus. Updated November 18, 2010. Accessed February 21, 2011.

March 17, 2011 by Katlyn Beecken '11

See also: Healthcare, Students