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Can an Omega-3 Fatty Acid Slow the Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease?


Nutritionists have long endorsed fish as part of a heart-healthy diet, and now some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids found in the oil of certain fish, algae and human breast milk also may benefit the brain by lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In order to test whether docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, can impact the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Alzheimer DiseaseResearch Center (ADRC) supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, will evaluate DHA in a clinical trial, the gold standard for medical research.

The local effort is part of a nationwide consortium of leading Alzheimer’s disease researchers supported by NIA and coordinated by the University of California, San Diego. The trial will take place at 52 sites across the United States. It seeks 400 participants age 50 and older with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Joseph Quinn, M.D., associate professor of neurology at Oregon Health and Science University, is directing the national study. Steven DeKosky, M.D., director of the ADRC and professor and chair of the department of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, will conduct the study locally.

Researchers will primarily evaluate whether taking DHA over many months slows the progression of both cognitive and functional decline in people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. During the 18-month clinical trial, investigators will measure the progress of the disease using standard tests for functional and cognitive change.

“Evidence to date in various research studies that have examined the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on Alzheimer’s disease merits further evaluation in a rigorous clinical trial,” said Dr. DeKosky. “Our hope is that we may find out that DHA plays a role in slowing the progression of this destructive disease.”

In recent European studies and the Framingham Heart Study, scientists reported that people with the highest blood levels of DHA were about half as likely to develop dementia as those with lower levels.

“Study volunteers will be critical to helping us find out if DHA can make an impact on the disease process,” said Dr. DeKosky.

For the clinical trial, the Martek Biosciences Corporation of Columbia, Md., will donate a pure form of DHA made from algae devoid of fish-related contaminants. Participants will receive either two grams of DHA per day or an inactive placebo pill. About 60 percent of participants will receive DHA, and 40 percent will recieve the placebo. Doctors and nurses at the 52 research clinic sites will monitor the participants in regular visits throughout the trial. To ensure unbiased results, neither the researchers conducting the trial nor the participants will know who is getting DHA and who is receiving the placebo.

In addition to monitoring disease progression through cognitive tests, researchers also will evaluate whether DHA supplements have a positive effect on physical and biological markers of Alzheimer’s disease, such as brain atrophy and proteins in blood and spinal fluid.

To learn how to participate in the study, contact Mary Ann Oakley at 412-692-2700 or the NIA’s Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center at 1-800-438-4380 or by e-mail to

The NIA leads the federal effort that supports and conducts research on aging and the medical, social and behavioral issues of older people, including Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline. For more information visit the NIA’s Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center at, or call 1-800-438-4380. For general information on research and aging, go to and for information about NIH and its programs, visit


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