WashU research has prompted a change in global guidelines for therapeutic food


 nutritional supplement popular in the U.S. and added to some types of yogurt, milk and infant formula can significantly improve cognition in severely malnourished children, according to a study led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The researchers 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, the 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.

Additionally, reducing the amount of linoleic acid — a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid — in the food also aided the children’s neurological abilities. This is because the chemical composition of the omega-6 fatty acid thwarts production of the brain-boosting DHA, the latter of which is essential for brain development during pregnancy and early childhood and also is associated with improved vision, heart health and immune system function.

“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.”

The findings were published online Nov. 2  in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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