Although a rich source of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that may confer multiple health benefits, some fish also contain methyl mercury (MeHg), which may harm the developing fetus. U.S. government recommendations for women of childbearing age are to modify consumption of high-MeHg fish to reduce MeHg exposure, while recommendations encourage fish consumption among the general population because of the nutritional benefits.
The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis convened an expert panel (see acknowledgements) to quantify the net impact of resulting hypothetical changes in fish consumption across the population. This paper estimates the impact of prenatal n-3 intake on cognitive development. Other papers quantify the negative impact of prenatal exposure to MeHg on cognitive development, and the extent to which fish consumption protects against coronary heart disease mortality and stroke in adults. This paper aggregates eight randomized controlled trials (RCTs) comparing cognitive development in controls and in children who had received n-3 PUFA supplementation (seven studies of formula supplementation and one study of maternal dietary supplementation).
Our analysis assigns study weights accounting for statistical precision, relevance of three endpoint domains (general intelligence, verbal ability, and motor skills) to prediction of IQ, and age at evaluation. The study estimates that increasing maternal docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) intake by 100 mg/day increases child IQ by 0.13 points. The paper notes that findings were inconsistent across the RCTs evaluated (although our findings were relatively robust to changes in the weighting scheme used). Also, for seven of the eight studies reviewed, effects are extrapolated from formula supplementation to maternal dietary intake.