Can increasing amounts of omega-3 fish oil consumption accelerate our development?

Did Shellfish Omega-3s
Spur Brain Evolution?

Recently discovered evidence suggests that the remnants of
humanity 164,000 years ago reveal complex cognition

By Will Block


ack in 1999, paleoanthropologists discovered a cave high in the cliffs at Pinnacle Point overlooking the Indian Ocean near South Africa’s Mossel Bay, where primitive humans lived 164,000 years ago.1 Surprisingly, the scientists found evidence that the inhabitants were far more advanced than previously thought. These forerunners of ourselves made small stone tools, began using red pigments in symbolic ways, and harvested shellfish from the sea for food. And they did this during a time of environmental stress, when the world was heavily glaciated and Africa was much colder and far more arid than today.

A bed of mussels, shellfish found at Mossel Bay
Once the harvesting of shellfish was optimized—by calculating for the tides and other vagaries—these early humans evolved to readily migrate up the coastline of Africa. Settlement by settlement, this progression gradually moved north until about 50,000 years ago, when it delivered Pinnacle Point-type technology to the Horn of Africa and eventually the Bab-el-Mandeb (the Gate of Tears). There, a small band of humans, perhaps no more than 150, crossed the mouth of the Red Sea and went on to populate the rest of the world, and make us who we are today.

The Origin of Complex Cognition

During the period surrounding the Mossel Bay settlement 164,000 years ago, it is thought that the human species had been reduced to less than 600 breeding individuals. Climate change had pushed our species to the brink. Then, with the discovery of how to ensure a high yield of shellfish from the sea, it became possible to spread humanity and colonize new areas rapidly, breaking out of the bottleneck caused by the struggle to obtain food. The genetic data clearly shows that all modern humans on earth today are descended from a group of people who existed 200,000 to 150,000 years ago. The 600 breeders may have been the remnants of humanity, and the ancestors of everyone alive today.

So, the discoveries that led to the incorporation of seafood into the primitive diet may provide answers to the questions of when and where modern human culture began. Not discovery, but discoveries, because these harvesters also had to teach others the knowledge they had learned. Furthermore, they had to communicate these ideas across generations. This may have been the origin of complex cognition. Perhaps not a coincidence, it might have occurred at the same time that our genetic lineage first appeared. How did they do it?

The Great Leap Forward: Language and Expansion Out of Africa

Some researchers have hypothesized that the consumption of shellfish was actually the spur that permitted humans to develop bigger and more agile brains, because shellfish are high in the omega-3 fatty acids needed by the brain to develop multiple functionalities. But Curtis Marean, PhD, a professor at Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change—and the lead author of the Pinnacle Point study—thinks that the big brain came first. In his mind, once humans are down on the beach, they just can’t figure out how to catch shellfish—or probably not well enough to sustain a society—without already being pretty smart. This makes sense, but eating shellfish was likely to enhance the thinking that was required to go to the next step . . . such as figuring out the connections between seemingly unrelated things, like the tides and when shellfish were most accessible and abundant.

Surprisingly, the scientists found
evidence that the inhabitants
were far more advanced than
previously thought.

Moreover, what was known to a few needed to be communicated to all, and that required more brainpower. From Dr. Marean’s viewpoint, big brains enabled a diminutive group of humans to switch to a brain-promoting diet of shellfish, and this monumental adaptation permitted their survival, when most of their peers were wiped out. So bigger brains got bigger, and this ultimately led to a great leap forward: the development of language and the expansion out of Africa and onward to the rest of the world and the creation of civilization as we know it.

Omega-3s Enhance Cognitive Development

Supporting the Pinnacle Point findings, recent evidence has emerged that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the principal omega-3 fatty acid in brain gray matter (and found in seafood), can enhance cognitive development.2 The goal of a recent study was to determine the effects of DHA on attention span in human subjects. Using 33 healthy young boys (8–10 years of age) randomly assigned to either 400 or 1200 mg of DHA per day, or placebo, for 8 weeks, the researchers measured changes in cortical activation patterns during sustained attention at the beginning and end of the study. Upon completion, it was found that erythrocyte membrane DHA composition increased by 47% from baseline in subjects who received 400 mg/day, and by 70% in those receiving 1200 mg/day. Both increases were significant.

Also, during sustained attention, both groups taking DHA had significantly greater changes from baseline in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex than did the placebo group. Plus the low-dose DHA group had decreases in the occipital cortex, while the high-dose DHA groups had greater decreases in the cerebellar cortex.

Compared to low-dose DHA, high-dose DHA resulted in greater decreases in activation of bilateral cerebellum. Reaction time decreased, inversely in proportion to the erythrocyte DHA composition. That meant that they were faster in their responses. This was positively correlated with dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activation. In conclusion, attention and reaction times were enhanced by both low-dose and high-dose DHA, but were nearly 50% greater for the high dose.

Omega-3s Improve IQ in Infants

It has been clear now for some time that omega-3 fish oil consumption is especially important in the first year of life, and especially the DHA component. DHA has been shown to have a structural and functional role in the brains of infants, where it is highly concentrated in the prefrontal cortex and associated with improved short-term memory. Maternal supplementation with cod liver oil, which is rich in DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), has been found to improve children’s intelligence quotient compared with corn-oil supplementation by 4 years of age.3 The association between maternal DHA intake during pregnancy and the children’s mental processing scores at 4 years suggests that optimization of the DHA status of expectant women may offer long-term developmental benefits to their children.

The 600 breeders may have been the
remnants of humanity, and the
ancestors of everyone alive today.

In a Chinese study, the infants of mothers who supplemented with DHA during pregnancy and lactation were found to have higher blood levels of DHA level, and this was directly related to better developmental results of visual acuity and intelligence.4 Other trials have also shown that higher DHA intake during pregnancy may be favorable for the visual and cognitive development of the offspring.5

Low Omega-3s Are Risk Factor for Alzheimer’s Disease

While it is known that the primary hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) involves neurodegeneration induced by beta-amyloid aggregation, epidemiological evidence points to low fish intake and the consequential low blood levels of DHA as a risk factor for AD. In studies done with lab animals, DHA depletion results in learning and memory deficits, and upon examination animal brains reveal inflammatory and oxidative neuronal damage as well as synaptic defects.6 But when DHA supplementation was given, behavioral defects were reversed as exemplified by improved cognitive function.

The antiinflammatory action of DHA along with its immune-stimulating effects are thought to be responsible for this reversal, owing in part to reduced production of proinflammatory omega-6 eicosanoids. These eicosanoids may cause damage to the vascular system, which in turn can raise some of the clinical flags of AD.

So bigger brains got bigger, and this
ultimately led to a great leap forward.

Omega-3s Protect Against Dementia

In a systematic literature review, researchers found an inverse association between eating fish or taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements and the risk of cognitive decline or AD.7 In three observational studies using the outcome of cognitive decline, omega-3s were found to offer significant benefits. However, only four of eight observational studies found the same positive correspondence using the outcomes of AD or dementia. That’s seven out of eleven or about 64%. But in four small clinical trials, the results were not convincing for the use of omega-3s for the prevention or treatment of any form of dementia. Taken together, omega-3s are clearly beneficial for slowing cognitive decline in elderly individuals without dementia, but the results are not clear for the prevention or treatment of dementia (including AD). This division could be the fault of inadequate study designs, such as insufficient dosage, and larger and longer clinical trials could make for definitive answers.

Fish Oil May Spare Development of Schizophrenia

In another recent study, conducted in Austria, fish oil supplements were found to spare some young people with early signs of mental illness from progressing into fully developed schizophrenia.8 Employing 81 subjects, ages 13 to 25, this study contributes to a succession of evidence showing that severe mental illness may be prevented with omega-3s. Schizophrenia is a brutal mental illness that typically affects adolescents and young adults. It is characterized by perceptual abnormalities that frequently include auditory hallucinations, disorganized speech and thinking with significant social or occupational dysfunction, and paranoid or bizarre delusions. “Schizophrenia is among the most mysterious and costliest diseases in terms of human suffering, so anything that gives some hope to avoid this is great,” said lead author Dr. G. Paul Amminger. An estimated 2.4 million Americans have the disorder, which is usually treated with heavy duty antipsychotic medication. Yet, in studies using antipsychotics in young people, the side effects have frequently outweighed the benefits and results have been uneven.

Omega-3 fish oil
is especially important in
the first year of life.

Amminger et al. hypothesized that the disease could be thwarted before it overwhelms a person’s grip on reality, with warning signs of psychosis, including sleeping aberrations, paranoid suspicions of others, beliefs that their thoughts are placed in their heads, and beliefs that they have magical powers. The subjects were split into two groups, of 41 and 40. The first group was given four fish oil supplements/day totaling 1.2 g omega-3s (DHA and EPA) while the others received placebos for three months. All the subjects were then monitored for one year, and while only 2 of the 41 patients in the fish oil group had become psychotic (about 5%), in the placebo group, 11 of 40 became psychotic (about 28%). The difference in the cumulative risk of progression to full-threshold psychosis between the groups was 22.6%. That’s significant.

Trials have also shown that higher
DHA intake during pregnancy may be
favorable for the visual and cognitive
development of the offspring.

While it is not clear what causes schizophrenia, it is speculated that people with the disease can’t process fatty acids properly, the result of which damages brain cells. It is thought that omega-3 fatty acids help repair brain cells and stabilize their activity. With such little risk, psychiatrists ought to recommend fish oil regularly to their patients.

Omega-3s Alleviate Depression, Help Prevent Blindness, and Protect Against Prostate Cancer

As other studies continue to find, omega-3 fatty acids offer many health benefits, including the alleviation of depression.9 It has been pointed out that those with major depressive disorder are particularly prone to high rates of cardiovascular disease and other medical comorbidities. And by helping with these, omega-3 fatty acids (especially from seafood) may play adjunctive roles in the treatment of mood disorders, as the preponderance of data from placebo-controlled treatment studies suggests. Although more research would be beneficial, because of the low risk, omega-3 supplement consumption can now be recommended as adjunctive therapy for the treatment of depression. Also on the boards, omega-3s are found to help prevent age-related blindness, protect against prostate cancer, and have a profound anti-aging effect, as well.

Omega-3 fatty acids may protect
against aging on a cellular level.

Omega-3s Found to Exert Anti-Aging Effect on Cells

Telomeres—the structures at the end of chromosomes involved in stabilizing and replicating chromosomes—are markers of biological aging. So factors arising from the genes or exposure to environmental stressors or certain chemicals may shorten the length of telomeres, thus contributing to the aging process. But now, new research hot off the presses of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicate that omega-3s may slow down the shortening of telomeres.10 If nothing else has elevated omega-3s to a stellar role in health, this is it: Omega-3 fatty acids may protect against aging on a cellular level.

Prior studies have shown that people who have cardiovascular disease (CVD) live longer than others if they have a high dietary intake of marine omega-3s. They live longer than others with CVD who do not have sufficient dietary omega-3s. But until now, no clear explanation has been available to understand why omega-3s exert this protective effect . . . until the publication of the JAMA study.

Subjects with the highest levels of
the omega-3s had the
slowest rate of telomere shortening.

The study began at the University of California, San Francisco, when Ramin Farzaneh-Far, MD, and colleagues hypothesized that omega-3 fatty acid blood levels might be connected to changes in leukocyte blood cell telomere length. The subjects, 608 people with stable coronary artery disease were studied for about five years, during which telomere lengths were measured at the beginning and at the end. They wanted to establish if there was any between baseline levels of the omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA and any ensuing change in telomere length. And indeed there was.

Of particular interest was the finding that research subjects with the least amount of DHA and EPA experienced the most rapid rate of telomere shortening and, on the other hand, subjects with the highest levels of the omega-3s had the slowest rate of telomere shortening.

3D representation of the enzyme telomerase RNA component (partial). It is suspected that omega-3s affect telomerase.
Quoting from the study, “Levels of DHA+EPA were associated with less telomere shortening before and after sequential adjustment for established risk factors and potential confounders. Each 1-standard deviation increase in DHA+EPA levels was associated with a 32 percent reduction in the odds of telomere shortening . . . These findings raise the possibility that omega-3 fatty acids may protect against cellular aging in patients with coronary heart disease.”

Can an abundance of omega-3s in the diet offer protection from cellular aging, not merely for those who have CVD, but for those who do not? This is good news, and more is likely to be forthcoming.

Fish oil supplements have passed
multivitamins in popularity.

Can Americans Get Smarter?

Here in 2010, we are at another crossroad, when our nation and indeed the world, is challenged by another type of monumental stress, mainly of the cultural-political-economic kind. So it is crucial that we develop new solutions to old problems. Can we as a society take another leap in intelligence? According to a recent survey undertaken by, fish oil supplements have passed multivitamins in popularity.* And to the degree that it once worked before, it could work again, and we could once more figuratively return to Pinnacle Point.

* Report/1_31_2010/

† See sidebar, “A Secret For Successful Negotiation” for an unexpected benefit of fish oil consumption.

A Secret for Successful Negotiation: Fish*

By Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw

No, we don’t propose negotiating with fish, but treating a person or persons with whom you are negotiating to a leisurely cold water fatty fish meal beforehand to increase your chances of getting them to accept your offer. Here’s how it worked as described in a recent study.1

Researchers doing the study hypothesized that low serum levels of omega-3 fatty acids, having been associated with increased hostility and decreased impulse control, might have a measurable effect on the willingness of people to accept offers made to them in the ultimatum bargaining game. You may recall our discussion (or have read about it elsewhere) that, in the ultimatum bargaining game, two players negotiate over the division of a given amount of money. The proposer (who initially has the money) offers a split with a responder. If the responder accepts the offer, they make the division and keep the proceeds. If the responder rejects the offer (as “unfair”), neither proposer or responder gets any money.

The ultimatum game has been a popular method of assessing how people make economic decisions, including fuzzy modulating concepts such as “fair” and “unfair.” A 50:50 split in the ultimatum game would be (as reflected in results of studies) considered “fair,” while most would reject a 10:90 split as “unfair.”

In this particular study, the researchers measured fasting serum alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA, an omega-3 fatty acid), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, another omega-3 fatty acid), as well as linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and arachidonic acid (a product of omega-6 fatty acids) in sixty undergraduate economics students. The results showed that the ratio of serum omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids was significantly lower in individuals who rejected “unfair” offers as compared to those who did not. There was a significant depletion of ALA, EPA, and DHA in the rejecters of “unfair” offers.

We make no guarantees concerning the outcome of your negotiation, but it would appear that you can reduce the likelihood of irrational rejections of perfectly reasonable offers on the basis of biases concerning “fair” and “unfair” by feeding those with whom you are negotiating a cold water fatty fish meal (rich in EPA and DHA)—wine along with it would probably improve the absorption of the omega-3 fatty acids—at a good restaurant before you get down to business.

  1. Emanuele et al. “Serum omega-3 fatty acids are associated with ultimatum bargaining behavior,” Physiol Behav 96:180-183 (2009)

* Originally published in Life Extension News April 2009;12(2).


  1. Marean CW, Bar-Matthews M, Bernatchez J, Fisher E, Goldberg P, Herries AI, Jacobs Z, Jerardino A, Karkanas P, Minichillo T, Nilssen PJ, Thompson E, Watts I, Williams HM. Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature 2007 Oct 18;449(7164):905-8.
  2. McNamara RK, Able J, Jandacek R, Rider T, Tso P, Eliassen JC, Alfieri D, Weber W, Jarvis K, Delbello MP, Strakowski SM, Adler CM. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Am J Clin Nutr 2010 Feb 3. [Epub ahead of print]
  3. Agostoni C. Role of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in the first year of life. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr 2008 Nov;47 Suppl 2:S41-4.
  4. Meng LP, Zhang J, Zhao WH. [Relationship between maternal DHA intake and DHA status and development of fetus and infant]. Wei Sheng Yan Jiu 2005 Mar;34(2):231-3.
  5. Decsi T, Koletzko B. N-3 fatty acids and pregnancy outcomes. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2005 Mar;8(2):161-6.
  6. Pauwels EK, Volterrani D, Mariani G, Kairemo K. Fatty acid facts, Part IV: docosahexaenoic acid and Alzheimer’s disease. A story of mice, men and fish. Drug News Perspect 2009 May;22(4):205-13.
  7. Fotuhi M, Mohassel P, Yaffe K. Fish consumption, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and risk of cognitive decline or Alzheimer disease: a complex association. Nat Clin Pract Neurol 2009 Mar;5(3):140-52.
  8. Amminger GP, Schäfer MR, Papageorgiou K, Klier CM, Cotton SM, Harrigan SM, Mackinnon A, McGorry PD, Berger GE. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for indicated prevention of psychotic disorders: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2010 Feb;67(2):146-54.
  9. Freeman MP. Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder. J Clin Psychiatry 2009;70 Suppl 5:7-11.
  10. Farzaneh-Far R, Lin J, Epel ES, Harris WS, Blackburn EH, Whooley MA. Association of marine omega-3 fatty acid levels with telomeric aging in patients with coronary heart disease. JAMA 2010 Jan 20;303(3):250-7.

Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.

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