Penn Medicine News Blog

February 10, 2016 // By Karen Kreeger // Comments

Bad Breakdown: How Essential Fatty Acids Put Up With Free Radicals

Neurodegenerative Diseases // Research // Translational Research

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids play an important, yet complicated, role in brain growth and disease, more and more research is showing. These are the same “essential” fats touted in ads for everything from baby formula to supplements to protein bars. They’re essential because the body needs them for maintaining healthy cells, especially for brain and nerve function, but humans can’t produce them. The only source is through what humans eat. 

“We know that omega-3s concentrate in the brain, and if infants are not given enough of them, their brains will not develop properly,” said Paul Axelsen, MD, a professor in the departments of Pharmacology, Medicine, and Biochemistry & Biophysics, who recently published a study that looked at their companion role in the brain in ACS Chemical Neuroscience. “But we haven’t the foggiest idea of their function. We know far more about omega-6s,” he said. For example, aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen all work by inhibiting omega-6 metabolism, but these anti-inflammatories don’t interfere with omega-3 breakdown.

“This paper’s findings are the biggest clue yet as to the function of omega-3s,” he added.

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