Globally, more than 16 million children under age 5 suffer from severe acute malnutrition. The condition is a form of starvation that primarily affects kids from impoverished areas of Africa and Asia and causes excessive thinness or swelling of the body while also compromising organ systems, including the brain.

WashU researchers have found that when the omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) was added to an internationally prescribed, nutrient-dense ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) similar to peanut butter, children’s overall cognition improved. The kids who ate the DHA-fortified food surpassed those who did not in gross and fine motor abilities, language proficiencies and social skills — all related to brain health.

“This is the first evidence of the cognitive effects of ready-to-use therapeutic food showing DHA and reduced omega-6 are needed to increase the brain power of children with severe acute malnutrition,” said the study’s senior author, Mark J. Manary, MD, the Helene B. Roberson Professor of Pediatrics. “We think the therapeutic food should be reformulated and standardized to include DHA and reduced omega-6. All children are entitled to our best efforts to reach their neurocognitive potential.”