Pregnant and breast-feeding women who supplement their diets with cod liver oil may help boost their children's intelligence, according to new study findings from Rikshospitalet University Hospital in Oslo, Norway.
But a leading US consumer advocate and physician argues that the study was too flawed for any conclusions to be drawn about the effects of cod liver oil. The study is ongoing and researchers will test intelligence again when the children are 7 years old.
A type of omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is crucial for the development of the central nervous system. It is theorized that pregnant and breast-feeding women who consume such fatty acids might improve the intellectual potential of their children, particularly during the third trimester and in the first three months of life, when the brain undergoes growth spurts.
To investigate, researchers gave more than 300 women either cod liver oil or corn oil supplements in their 18th week of pregnancy. The women took the supplements daily until their infant was 3 months old. There were no other differences in nutrient intake as a result of the mothers' usual diets.
According to findings based on 84 infants, children born to mothers who took cod liver oil supplements scored higher on intelligence tests measuring problem solving and information processing at 4 years of age.
While more research is needed, the findings suggest that pregnant and lactating women should take the supplements since they are not associated with any negative side effects.
However, experts generally recommend that pregnant women avoid medications and supplements in pregnancy, unless the benefits have been clearly shown to outweigh the risks--as in the case of folic acid, which helps prevent birth defects. Women should consult their physician before taking any supplements during pregnancy.
The new findings support research showing that breast-fed infants may outsmart their formula-fed peers later in life, possibly as a result of compounds, including omega-3 fatty acids, found in breast milk. Last year, these compounds were added to infant formulas sold in the United States. Whether infants benefit equally from synthetic forms of these fatty acids is not yet clear.
It is also not known if cod liver oil taken during pregnancy would benefit infants who are fed formula, the researchers note.
Wolfe argued that 40% of parents in the study refused to have their children's intelligence tested, which could have produced a "huge" bias in the study because such parents may have thought their children had problems.
Also, he added, results were not statistically significant for three of the four measures of intelligence that the researchers used.
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