Beyond building better brains: bridging the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) gap of prematurity

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Abstract

Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are essential for normal vision and neurodevelopment. DHA accretion in utero occurs primarily in the last trimester of pregnancy to support rapid growth and brain development. Premature infants, born before this process is complete, are relatively deficient in this essential fatty acid. Very low birth weight (VLBW) infants remain deficient for a long period of time due to ineffective conversion from precursor fatty acids, lower fat stores and a limited nutritional provision of DHA after birth. In addition to long-term visual and neurodevelopmental risks, VLBW infants have significant morbidity and mortality from diseases specific to premature birth, including bronchopulmonary dysplasia, necrotizing enterocolitis, and retinopathy of prematurity. There is increasing evidence that DHA has protective benefits against these disease states. The aim of this article is to identify the unique needs of premature infants, review the current recommendations for LCPUFA provision in infants and discuss the caveats and innovative new ways to overcome the DHA deficiency through postnatal supplementation, with the long-term goal of improving morbidity and mortality in this at-risk population.

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