Although malnutrition during pregnancy is known to lead to poor outcomes for babies, "the functional long-term consequences of maternal malnutrition on the brains and behavior of their progeny are mostly unknown," the researchers noted.
"It makes sense" that a baby born to a mother who was not consuming enough omega-3s might be at higher risk for neural deficiencies, Asnis says. Offspring are wholly dependent on their mothers to supply these fatty acids both while in utero and during breast-feeding. And the researchers found that mice born to mothers who had been fed an omega-3 deficient diet and were then themselves given poor diets also suffered from negative behavioral changes.
Omega-3s are of course not the sole actor in neurological development and health. "Behavior is multi-determined, affected by so many things," Asnis says. And depression and other mood disorders can vary widely among individuals.
Animal models for diseases such as cancer have frequently been found lacking and for neurological disorders they also do not always translate synapse by synapse to humans. But Asnis notes that there have been reassuring precedents in studying depressive behavior in animals, such as work with serotonin and tryptophan. "I think there might be a paradigm" that could translate to humans, he says. "It seems like an important discovery that manipulating omega-3 levels can have behavioral effects."
And even if the findings prove relevant only for a subpopulation of patients with depression and omega-3 deficiencies, the implications are substantial. With omega-3 rich fish and flaxseed oils now common in grocery and drug store supplement sections, maintaining a diet replete in these crucial fatty acids is not as hard as it once was. And the promise of being able to treat some depressed individuals—and perhaps prevent the condition in others—with "something that's so easy to give," Asnis says, is incredibly appealing.