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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) Sep 21 – While a prenatal diet high in fish can expose the fetus to environmental contaminants, the benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids on visual function might outweigh the risks, according to a new study conducted among the Inuit in Canada.

“The Inuit are known to have among the heaviest exposures to PCBs and methylmercury in the world,” coauthor Dr. Joseph Jacobson of Wayne State University in Detroit told Reuters Health. “They eat a lot of seafood and fish, as well as arctic sea mammals which eat a lot of seafood and fish.”

“At the same time,” he added, “many of these fish and arctic sea mammals are great sources of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid known to be beneficial to visual and cognitive development.”

But are these potential development benefits worth the toxic risks? While some earlier studies had found DHA supplementation after birth improves early cognitive and visual development, no one had yet evaluated the effects of prenatal exposure on vision in later childhood.

So Dr. Jacobson and his colleagues studied 136 Inuit children living in Nunavik in northern Quebec, Canada, to determine how their unique prenatal exposures influenced their visual function at roughly 11 years. These children and their mothers had previously participated in the Nunavik Cord Blood Monitoring Program.

After accounting for factors such as smoking during pregnancy and breastfeeding, higher levels of DHA in umbilical cord blood were linked with significantly better visual system function later on, according to the study report, published online August 27th in The Journal of Pediatrics.

Specifically, the kids with the higher DHA levels at birth had significantly shorter latencies of certain components of color visual evoked potentials.

“We did not see dramatic adverse effects from the contaminants, but saw impressive beneficial effects from the DHA,” said Dr. Jacobson. “And it was striking that it wasn’t the DHA in their blood currently, it was DHA in their cord blood — reflecting what they had gotten prenatally, particularly during third trimester.”

The researchers don’t suggest that DHA protected children against the toxic effects from the contaminants, only that the beneficial visual effects still held in their presence.

While the vision differences weren’t noticeable to the kids — no impact was seen on basic screening tests such as eye charts – Dr. Jacobson speculates that the subtle improvements in the brain’s processing of visual images might protect these children from later vision loss. He emphasizes, though, that there’s no evidence yet to support that claim.

The researchers do have a good idea about why DHA early in life could be helpful for visual development. “We know that DHA is a major constituent of the retina, and of cell membranes,” said Dr. Jacobson. “It probably has beneficial effects on early brain growth.”

He suggests that the average American woman should consider doubling the amount of DHA she consumes during pregnancy to get closer to the comparatively high levels of the omega-3 fatty acid consumed in Europe and by the Inuit.

“There are significant potential benefits from increasing DHA intake during pregnancy for brain and visual development,” By Lynne Peeples

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