Name: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Synonyms: Omega 3 fatty acid
Therapy Type: Supplement, Dietary (timeline)
Target Type: Other (timeline)
Condition(s): Alzheimer's Disease
U.S. FDA Status: Alzheimer's Disease (Phase 4)
Company: Martek Biosciences Corporation, NeuroBioPharm, Inc.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the most abundant polyunsaturated fatty acids in the human brain. Epidemiological research has linked high DHA consumption with a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease (e.g., Morris et al., 2003). People ingest DHA from foods such as fatty fish, walnuts, or flax seeds, or from dietary supplements. These are being marketed in different formulations of DHA, or DHA mixed with other omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Elevated blood levels of DHA correlate with reduced dementia risk in some but not all studies (Schaefer et al., 2006; Laurin et al., 2003). Animal studies have reported a reduction of amyloid, tau, and neuritic pathology with oral intake of DHA (Lim et al., 2005; Green et al., 2007; Calon et al., 2004).
DHA has been tested in clinical trials by itself and as part of other food-supplement formulations.
In 2000, Karolinska University Hospital began the OmegAD trial, which evaluated a six-month course of treatment with a DHA-containing fish oil formulation called EPAX 1050 TG in 204 people with mild to moderate AD, of whom 174 completed the study. The treatment and placebo groups did not differ on either of the main outcome measures, decline on the MMSE and ADAS-cog, or on neuropsychiatric symptoms overall. However, analysis of a small subgroup of the 32 mildest cases did suggest less decline on the MMSE, though not ADAS-cog, and a similar slowing of decline appeared to occur in the placebo group once switched to DHA after six months (Freund-Levi et al., 2006; see news and commentary; Freund-Levi et al., 2008). Substudies suggested that DHA treatment increased CSF levels of DHA and other fatty acids and decreased levels of tau, as well as changing expression of inflammation-related genes and release of certain cytokines in white blood cells (Freund-Levi et al., 2014; Vedin et al., 2012; Vedin et al., 2008).
From 2007 to 2009, the Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study conducted a study at 51 centers in North America to evaluate an 18-month course of 2 grams per day of DHA in 402 patients with mild to moderate AD, of whom 295 completed the trial. DHA had no effect, relative to placebo, on rate of decline on either the ADAS-cog or the CDR-SOB clinical/functional assessment. Analysis by participants' ApoE genotype indicated a slower cognitive decline in ApoE4 noncarriers, who may have been relatively less advanced in their disease (Quinn et al., 2010; Nov 2010 news).
This pharmacogenetic hint of a differential effect prompted several bioavailability studies at the Université de Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, between 2009 and 2011, which analyzed the percentage of DHA in lipoproteins, incorporation into plasma lipids, and pharmacokinetics by ApoE genotype in healthy young adults and people with MCI (e.g., Chouinard-Watkins et al., 2013; Plourde et al., 2014).
The largest clinical trial of DHA is the MAPT trial, conducted in four cities in France. This three-year, secondary prevention study in 1,680 participants began in 2008 and enrolled people 70 and older who reported a subjective memory complaint and a mild functional loss, were frail and walked slowly, but did not meet an Alzheimer's diagnosis (Carrié et al., 2012). MAPT compared three interventions—800 mg DHA and 225 mg EPA daily alone, DHA/EPA plus a multidomain behavioral intervention, multidomain behavioral intervention alone—to placebo (Gillette-Guyonnet et al., 2009). Neither intervention, alone or in combination, significantly slowed cognitive decline as measured by a composite score of four tests of recall, orientation, processing and verbal fluency (Andrieu et al., 2017).
A subsequent analysis of MAPT data suggested higher odds of cognitive decline for people with low DHA/EPA levels (Bowman et al., 2019). Lower serum DHA was also correlated with more cerebral amyloidosis and atrophy (Yassine et al., 2016, Aug 2016 news). In response to those findings, MAPT investigators in April 2018 began LO-MAPT. This 18-month study is enrolling 400 older adults with low DHA/EPA status, who will be randomized to 1.53 g/day DHA/EPA or placebo. Participants must have subjective memory complaints or a family history of AD. The primary outcome is change in a cognitive composite of scores on the Free Cued and Selective Reminding Test, MMSE, and Category Naming Test. The trial offers an 18-month open-label extension, and will end in 2022.
From 2009 to 2011, the company NeuroBioPharm Inc. ran a six-month trial at 14 different sites in Canada to compare two different soft-capsule formulations of fish oil, each containing 100 mg DHA, to placebo in 175 people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. This trial used the Neuropsychological Test Battery as primary outcome; data have not been published.
One DHA study, at Oregon Health and Science University, opened recruitment in May 2014. According to published baseline data, the trial recruited 102 people age 75 and older who were cognitively impaired but did not have dementia, for a three-year course of 1.65 grams/day of EPA plus DHA compared with placebo (Bowman et al., 2019). Seeking to understand the effect of DHA on vascular cognitive aging, this trial uses white-matter hyperintensity as its primary outcome; secondary and other outcome measures include other brain imaging modalities as well as blood-based indicators of endothelial health, and some neuropsychological tests.
In June 2016, a pilot study at the University of Southern California began evaluating how much of a DHA supplement enters the central nervous system, and whether CSF levels are influenced by ApoE4 status (for review, see Yassine et al., 2017). The trial enrolled 31 adults older than 55 with a family history of dementia, who took 2g DHA per day or placebo for 26 weeks. The primary outcome was change in CSF DHA before and after supplementation. According to data presented at AAIC 2019, treatment resulted in a 15 percent increase in CSF DHA compared with placebo, with less in ApoE4 carriers. The differences were not statistically significant (see abstract).
In July 2018, the same group began a larger follow-up study in 320 healthy adults age 60-80, who have at least one dementia risk factor. Participants will take 2g DHA or placebo daily for two years. After six months of treatment, investigators will analyze CSF fatty acids; changes in MRI measures of structural and functional connectivity and cognition will be assessed at two years. The study will run through 2023.
For all clinical trials of DHA in Alzheimer's, see clinicaltrials.gov.
Last Updated: 07 Feb 2020
- First Trial of Fish Fats Shows Promise for Early AD
- Paper Alert: Negative DHA Trial Fuels Soul-Searching in AD Field
- Less Salmon, More Plaques? Link Between Omega-3s and Aβ Reinvigorates Fish Oil Debate
- Freund-Levi Y, Eriksdotter-Jönhagen M, Cederholm T, Basun H, Faxén-Irving G, Garlind A, Vedin I, Vessby B, Wahlund LO, Palmblad J. Omega-3 fatty acid treatment in 174 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer disease: OmegAD study: a randomized double-blind trial. Arch Neurol. 2006 Oct;63(10):1402-8. PubMed.
- Freund-Levi Y, Basun H, Cederholm T, Faxén-Irving G, Garlind A, Grut M, Vedin I, Palmblad J, Wahlund LO, Eriksdotter-Jönhagen M. Omega-3 supplementation in mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease: effects on neuropsychiatric symptoms. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2008 Feb;23(2):161-9. PubMed.
- Freund Levi Y, Vedin I, Cederholm T, Basun H, Faxén Irving G, Eriksdotter M, Hjorth E, Schultzberg M, Vessby B, Wahlund LO, Salem N Jr, Palmblad J. Transfer of omega-3 fatty acids across the blood-brain barrier after dietary supplementation with a docosahexaenoic acid-rich omega-3 fatty acid preparation in patients with Alzheimer's disease: the OmegAD study. J Intern Med. 2014 Apr;275(4):428-36. Epub 2014 Jan 11 PubMed.
- Vedin I, Cederholm T, Freund-Levi Y, Basun H, Garlind A, Irving GF, Eriksdotter-Jönhagen M, Wahlund LO, Dahlman I, Palmblad J. Effects of DHA-rich n-3 fatty acid supplementation on gene expression in blood mononuclear leukocytes: the OmegAD study. PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e35425. Epub 2012 Apr 24 PubMed.
- Vedin I, Cederholm T, Freund Levi Y, Basun H, Garlind A, Faxén Irving G, Jönhagen ME, Vessby B, Wahlund LO, Palmblad J. Effects of docosahexaenoic acid-rich n-3 fatty acid supplementation on cytokine release from blood mononuclear leukocytes: the OmegAD study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Jun;87(6):1616-22. PubMed.
- Quinn JF, Raman R, Thomas RG, Yurko-Mauro K, Nelson EB, Van Dyck C, Galvin JE, Emond J, Jack CR, Weiner M, Shinto L, Aisen PS. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation and cognitive decline in Alzheimer disease: a randomized trial. JAMA. 2010 Nov 3;304(17):1903-11. PubMed.
- Chouinard-Watkins R, Rioux-Perreault C, Fortier M, Tremblay-Mercier J, Zhang Y, Lawrence P, Vohl MC, Perron P, Lorrain D, Brenna JT, Cunnane SC, Plourde M. Disturbance in uniformly 13C-labelled DHA metabolism in elderly human subjects carrying the apoE ε4 allele. Br J Nutr. 2013 Apr 30;:1-9. PubMed.
- Plourde M, Chouinard-Watkins R, Rioux-Perreault C, Fortier M, Dang MT, Allard MJ, Tremblay-Mercier J, Zhang Y, Lawrence P, Vohl MC, Perron P, Lorrain D, Brenna JT, Cunnane SC. Kinetics of 13C-DHA before and during fish-oil supplementation in healthy older individuals. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 May 14;100(1):105-112. PubMed.
- Carrié I, van Kan GA, Gillette-Guyonnet S, Andrieu S, Dartigues JF, Touchon J, Dantoine T, Rouaud O, Bonnefoy M, Robert P, Cuffi MN, Bories L, Bordes S, Gasnier Y, Desclaux F, Sudres K, Pesce A, Vellas B. Recruitment strategies for preventive trials. The MAPT study (MultiDomain Alzheimer Preventive Trial). J Nutr Health Aging. 2012 Apr;16(4):355-9. PubMed.
- Gillette-Guyonnet S, Andrieu S, Dantoine T, Dartigues JF, Touchon J, Vellas B, . Commentary on "A roadmap for the prevention of dementia II. Leon Thal Symposium 2008." The Multidomain Alzheimer Preventive Trial (MAPT): a new approach to the prevention of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2009 Mar;5(2):114-21. PubMed.
- Andrieu S, Guyonnet S, Coley N, Cantet C, Bonnefoy M, Bordes S, Bories L, Cufi MN, Dantoine T, Dartigues JF, Desclaux F, Gabelle A, Gasnier Y, Pesce A, Sudres K, Touchon J, Robert P, Rouaud O, Legrand P, Payoux P, Caubere JP, Weiner M, Carrié I, Ousset PJ, Vellas B, MAPT Study Group. Effect of long-term omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation with or without multidomain intervention on cognitive function in elderly adults with memory complaints (MAPT): a randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet Neurol. 2017 May;16(5):377-389. Epub 2017 Mar 27 PubMed.
- Bowman GL, Dodge HH, Guyonnet S, Zhou N, Donohue J, Bichsel A, Schmitt J, Hooper C, Bartfai T, Andrieu S, Vellas B, MAPT/DSA Study Group. A blood-based nutritional risk index explains cognitive enhancement and decline in the multidomain Alzheimer prevention trial. Alzheimers Dement (N Y). 2019;5:953-963. Epub 2019 Dec 28 PubMed.
- Yassine HN, Feng Q, Azizkhanian I, Rawat V, Castor K, Fonteh AN, Harrington MG, Zheng L, Reed BR, DeCarli C, Jagust WJ, Chui HC. Association of Serum Docosahexaenoic Acid With Cerebral Amyloidosis. JAMA Neurol. 2016 Oct 1;73(10):1208-1216. PubMed.
- Bowman GL, Silbert LC, Dodge HH, Lahna D, Hagen K, Murchison CF, Howieson D, Kaye J, Quinn JF, Shinto L. Randomized Trial of Marine n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids for the Prevention of Cerebral Small Vessel Disease and Inflammation in Aging (PUFA Trial): Rationale, Design and Baseline Results. Nutrients. 2019 Mar 29;11(4) PubMed.
- Yassine HN, Braskie MN, Mack WJ, Castor KJ, Fonteh AN, Schneider LS, Harrington MG, Chui HC. Association of Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation With Alzheimer Disease Stage in Apolipoprotein E ε4 Carriers: A Review. JAMA Neurol. 2017 Mar 1;74(3):339-347. PubMed.
- Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, Tangney CC, Bennett DA, Wilson RS, Aggarwal N, Schneider J. Consumption of fish and n-3 fatty acids and risk of incident Alzheimer disease. Arch Neurol. 2003 Jul;60(7):940-6. PubMed.
- Schaefer EJ, Bongard V, Beiser AS, Lamon-Fava S, Robins SJ, Au R, Tucker KL, Kyle DJ, Wilson PW, Wolf PA. Plasma phosphatidylcholine docosahexaenoic acid content and risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease: the Framingham Heart Study. Arch Neurol. 2006 Nov;63(11):1545-50. PubMed.
- Laurin D, Verreault R, Lindsay J, Dewailly E, Holub BJ. Omega-3 fatty acids and risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. J Alzheimers Dis. 2003 Aug;5(4):315-22. PubMed.
- Lim GP, Calon F, Morihara T, Yang F, Teter B, Ubeda O, Salem N Jr, Frautschy SA, Cole GM. A diet enriched with the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid reduces amyloid burden in an aged Alzheimer mouse model. J Neurosci. 2005 Mar 23;25(12):3032-40. PubMed.
- Green KN, Martinez-Coria H, Khashwji H, Hall EB, Yurko-Mauro KA, Ellis L, LaFerla FM. Dietary docosahexaenoic acid and docosapentaenoic acid ameliorate amyloid-beta and tau pathology via a mechanism involving presenilin 1 levels. J Neurosci. 2007 Apr 18;27(16):4385-95. PubMed.
- Calon F, Lim GP, Yang F, Morihara T, Teter B, Ubeda O, Rostaing P, Triller A, Salem N, Ashe KH, Frautschy SA, Cole GM. Docosahexaenoic acid protects from dendritic pathology in an Alzheimer's disease mouse model. Neuron. 2004 Sep 2;43(5):633-45. PubMed.
- Aβ Oligomers Linked to ER Stress in Patient-Derived Neurons
- Nutrient Formulation Appears to Grease Memory Function
- DHA Study—Could Alzheimer’s Be a Liver Disease?
- Research Brief: DHA Promotes Neurogenesis, Neurite Outgrowth in Mice
- Neither Exercise Nor Supplements Boost Cognition in Two Large Studies
- Hennebelle M, Plourde M, Chouinard-Watkins R, Castellano CA, Barberger-Gateau P, Cunnane SC. Ageing and apoE change DHA homeostasis: relevance to age-related cognitive decline. Proc Nutr Soc. 2013 Oct 9;:1-7. PubMed.
- Gillette-Guyonnet S, Secher M, Vellas B. Nutrition and neurodegeneration: epidemiological evidence and challenges for future research. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar;75(3):738-55. PubMed.
- Cederholm T, Salem N Jr, Palmblad J. ω-3 fatty acids in the prevention of cognitive decline in humans. Adv Nutr. 2013 Nov;4(6):672-6. Epub 2013 Nov 6 PubMed.
- Calon F. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in Alzheimer's disease: key questions and partial answers. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2011 Aug;8(5):470-8. PubMed.
- Amen DG, Harris WS, Kidd PM, Meysami S, Raji CA. Quantitative Erythrocyte Omega-3 EPA Plus DHA Levels are Related to Higher Regional Cerebral Blood Flow on Brain SPECT. J Alzheimers Dis. 2017;58(4):1189-1199. PubMed.
- Witte AV, Kerti L, Hermannstädter HM, Fiebach JB, Schreiber SJ, Schuchardt JP, Hahn A, Flöel A. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids improve brain function and structure in older adults. Cereb Cortex. 2014 Nov;24(11):3059-68. Epub 2013 Jun 24 PubMed.
- Shinto L, Quinn J, Montine T, Dodge HH, Woodward W, Baldauf-Wagner S, Waichunas D, Bumgarner L, Bourdette D, Silbert L, Kaye J. A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Pilot Trial of Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Alpha Lipoic Acid in Alzheimer's Disease. J Alzheimers Dis. 2014 Jan 1;38(1):111-20. PubMed.
- Hachem M, Belkouch M, Lo Van A, Picq M, Bernoud-Hubac N, Lagarde M. Brain targeting with docosahexaenoic acid as a prospective therapy for neurodegenerative diseases and its passage across blood brain barrier. Biochimie. 2020 Mar;170:203-211. Epub 2020 Jan 31 PubMed.