Climate change threatens fatty acid essential for brain health

Global warming may lead to a drastic reduction in the availability of an essential omega-3 fatty acid that is needed for brain development in mammals, among other things. Docosahexaenoic acid, more commonly called DHA, is primarily acquired from eating seafood and fish, though it can also be acquired from fatty acid supplements. The production of DHA is mostly reliant on biochemical reactions that are very sensitive to temperature changes.

The findings come from researchers at multiple Canadian universities, where a mathematical model was used to explore the potential effects global warming may have on DHA production and availability in the future. The team used different possible global warming scenarios, finding that in a worst-case scenario — one where climate change is left unchecked — the majority of the human population may have inadequate access to DHA within a single century.

By the year 2100, domestic fish production under this climate change model wouldn't be adequate for meeting the DHA needs of 96-percent of the world's population, according to the study. Only small countries with low populations and high levels of fish production may be able to meet their own DHA requirements.

A lack of access to adequate levels of DHA would put populations of people at risk, particularly impacting developing fetuses and infants. This omega-3 fatty acid is the primary compound in the brain's cerebral cortex and structure, and it also plays a vital role in the retina and skin. The acid is also important for heart health, among other things.

The researchers explained in a statement:

According to our model, global warming could result in a 10 to 58% loss of globally-available DHA in the next 80 years. A decrease in levels will have the greatest effect on vulnerable populations and periods of human development, such as foetuses and infants, and may also affect predatory mammals, especially those in Polar Regions.