Formula enriched with essential fatty acids may improve cognitive development

September 2, 2013

A new US study reports that infants who were fed formula enriched with long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids from birth to 12 months scored significantly better on several measures of intelligence.

In the randomized controlled trial, 81 infants were fed one of four formulas from birth to 12 months: three with varying levels of docosahexaenoic acid (17, 34 or 51 mg DHA/100 kcal) plus arachidonic acid (34 mg ARA/100 kcal) and a placebo formula with no long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (1). Beginning at 18 months, the children were tested every six months until six years of age on age-appropriate standardized and specific cognitive tests. The study results showed that while at 18 months the children who received enriched formula did not perform any better on the tests than the control group, by age three they showed a significantly better performance on finer-grained, laboratory-based measures of several aspects of cognitive function. Specifically, the supplemented children showed accelerated development on detailed tasks involving pattern discrimination, rule-learning and inhibition between the ages of three to five years of age.

The researchers commented that the results of earlier supplementation studies have been mixed, but many of those studies have relied mainly on children’s performance on standard tests of infant development at 18 months. The results of the new study support the contention that studies of nutrition and cognition should include more comprehensive and sensitive assessments that are administered multiple times through early childhood.

The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is known to affect brain and eye development. Babies derive it from their mothers before birth and up to age two. As American diets are often deficient in DHA sources, such as fish, potential benefits of enriched formulas on children’s development have been investigated in many studies. The omega-6 fatty acid ARA is also present in breast milk and used in commercial formula.


  1. Colombo J. et al. Long-term effects of LCPUFA supplementation on childhood cognitive outcomes. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2013; 98(2):403-412.