Emory Report
February 26, 2007
Volume 59, Number 21

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February 26, 2007
New study examines omega-3, post-partum depression

BY robin tricoles

Researchers from Emory and the Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica in Cuernavaca, Mexico have launched a new study to determine what effects omega-3 fatty acids may have on both infants and their mothers. The investigators are trying to determine whether omega-3 fatty acids can heighten infants’ growth and development, while preventing post-partum depression in their mothers.

“We want to know the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids taken during pregnancy and look at ways nutritional interventions promote early childhood growth and development,” said Usha Ramakrishnan, associate professor in the Hubert Department of Global Health in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and principal investigator of the study. “Omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly linked to cardiovascular health, but research has also shown that omega-3 fatty acids are important to development, especially development of the nervous system,” she said.

As part of an NIH- and March of Dimes-funded study, more than 1,000 women from Cuernavaca have received either a placebo or 400 mg per day of the omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid, beginning halfway through their pregnancies and ending at delivery.

In the randomized, double-blind study, researchers will assess the infants’ mental and motor development through 18 months of age by collecting and analyzing data on height, weight, head circumference and attention span, as well as neurological responses to visual and auditory stimuli. The researchers are also evaluating each mother’s social support system and home environment.

Because previous research has shown that the consumption of DHA is associated with decreased rates of depression, Ramakrishnan said the study also will look at post-partum depression.

“We will measure postpartum depression in the mothers at three, six and 12 months after birth. There is evidence that if a mother is depressed, she may provide less stimulation for her child, which could affect the child’s development,” said Ann DiGirolamo, Emory assistant professor of global health and a co-investigator of the study.

“I think the outcome on depression will be very important especially if we find that DHA consumption improves the mothers’ quality of life,” Ramakrishnan said. “We know from previous research that the maternal state of mind is very important in how she interacts with her child and thus for her child’s development. Development is not just about hardwiring, so much of it is about the home environment, the caregiver’s capabilities and the range of social support,” she said.

Many of the investigators involved in this study are members of the advisory group for a project recently funded by the Emory Global Health Institute to strengthen and expand ties between Emory and INSP. The mission of INSP is to advance the health of Mexico’s population through research, knowledge and innovation. The expanded partnership with Emory is aimed at creating long-term sustainable strategies for research, capacity building, training and student exchange that will improve global health. Reynaldo Martorell, Woodruff Professor and chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health in the Rollins School of Public Health, is leading the Emory-INSP project.

The Emory Global Health Institute was established to support and develop innovative research, training and programs that address the most pressing health challenges around the world.