Scientists find that protein improves absorption of omega 3s, boosts brain development
07/10/2019 // Stephanie Diaz // Views

Scientists from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) recently discovered a new form of nano-encapsulated suspension that can positively affect the absorption of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for both mother and offspring. This new technology, which was published in the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine, was conducted primarily to address issues regarding the absorption of DHA.

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid commonly found in fatty fish, fish oil, and breast milk. It's essential for brain development in infants, as well as maintaining overall brain function in adults. Many studies have shown that DHA levels are associated with memory and learning: High levels of DHA have been found to improve learning abilities, while low levels impair cognitive function. (Related: Studies show omega-3 fatty acids help with ADHD, memory, and moods.)

People can get DHA through a healthy and balanced diet, but in some cases -- like in pregnant women, children, and those with cancer -- supplementation is necessary and often recommended. In the study, the researchers investigated whether supplementation using DHA nanoencapsulation can improve DHA levels absorbed by the brain.

The researchers noted that while DHA is essential for brain health, it is highly unsaturated and can easily degrade and oxidize under acidic conditions. This contributes to the poor bioavailability of DHA, especially in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Therefore, they noted the importance of finding approaches to improve DHA absorption in the GI tract, as well as the placenta and blood-brain barrier.


Zein helps improve bioavailability of DHA

The study, led by PolyU researchers Wang Yi and Wong Man-Sau, revealed that an edible protein called zein can protect DHA from deteriorating after being exposed to gastric juices during digestion. Zein is found in corn and can safely be used in medical applications since it is non-toxic and has no known side effects.

The zein nanocapsule was formed by imitating the structure of milk. The zein acts as a membrane, envelopes DHA, and acts as a barrier against stomach acid -- similar to how milk is digested. This will ensure that DHA does not degenerate and will be absorbed by the brain, intestine, and placenta.

The researchers assessed the effectiveness of the nanocapsule by feeding two different groups of mice with different preparations of DHA. One group was fed normal fish oil while the other was fed zein encapsulated fish oil. The researchers found that the latter had a higher concentration of DHA in the gut, suggesting that DHA was protected from gastric juices and did not oxidize during stomach digestion.

Moreover, pregnant mice who were treated with the nano-encapsulated DHA had a higher DHA concentration in their brain. In effect, pregnant mice that were fed high amounts of DHA showed that their offsprings had higher cognitive functions.

In another experiment, the effect of DHA in the brain development of the mice's offspring was studied, where six groups of mice were fed different forms and volumes of DHA. The researchers found that the mice that were treated with high quantities of fish oil encapsulated with zein had a higher amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein essential for brain cell survival and growth.

Learn more about DHA and other forms of omega-3s -- and how they affect brain development -- at

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