Science Update

New study demonstrates omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increases BDNF in schizophrenia patients

Schizophrenia is thought to develop due to disrupted developmental processes in the brain–processes which are modulated by glial cells and cytokines. Cytokines play a critical role in inflammatory processes between the brain and the immune system. Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is one of the most studied and abundant growth factors in the brain and it plays an essential role in processes disrupted in schizophrenia.

Previous research has shown decreased BDNF levels in schizophrenia patients. Although there have been medication advancements, the treatment of schizophrenia remains a challenge. Therefore, the investigation of antioxidants, vitamins, and nutrients should be considered.

In a new study published last Friday, researchers demonstrated that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids increases BDNF levels in patients with schizophrenia. This was the first study analyzing changes in BDNF levels in schizophrenia patients supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids.

This was a randomized placebo-controlled trial including 71 patients ages 16 to 35 years of age with first-episode schizophrenia. Each patient consumed 2.2 grams daily of omega-3 supplementation or olive oil over a 26-week period. Plasma BDNF levels were assessed at baseline, 8 weeks, and at 26 weeks. Changes in BDNF levels were then correlated with changes in symptom severity.

Results showed a much greater increase in plasma BDNF levels in patients who supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids compared to those who did not. In addition, changes in BDNF levels were inversely correlated with depressive symptoms. BDNF is thought to regulate a key transcription factor that is involved in neuroprotection, neuroinflammation, and cellular growth.

Previous research has described a link between serotonin and omega-3 fatty acids’ significant effect on neurological disorders. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) increases serotonin release from presynaptic neurons by reducing inflammatory signaling molecules in the brain known as E2 series prostaglandins, which inhibit serotonin release, suggesting how inflammation may negatively impact serotonin in the brain. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) also plays a role in the serotonin pathway. DHA influences the action of several serotonin receptors, making them more accessible to serotonin by increasing cell membrane fluidity in postsynaptic neurons.

In general, lower RBC omega-3 fatty acid levels have been seen in those with schizophrenia. Fish oils are effective in those with high risk and in first-episode psychosis patients compared to those in the chronic stage of the disease. EPA was more effective than DHA in reducing symptoms with dosing between 2-3 grams per day.

Other nutrients that may be beneficial in reducing schizophrenia symptoms include vitamin D, B vitamins, broccoli sprouts, and tocotrienols.

By Michael Jurgelewicz, DC, DACBN, DCBCN, CNS

Source: Pawelczyk T, Grancow-Grabka M, et al. An increase in plasma brain derived neurotrophic factor levels is related to n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid efficacy in first episode schizophrenia: secondary outcome analysis of the OFFER randomized clinical trial. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2019 May 17.