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Omega-3s May Help Prevent Blindness

Early Tests in Mice Show Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Curb Unhealthy Blood Vessel Growth in Eye
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 25, 2007 -- Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent blindness by thwarting the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the eye.

That news appears in the advance online edition of the journal Nature Medicine.

Three leading causes of blindness are age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and retinopathy related to premature birth.

All three conditions involve retinopathy, which is the abnormal development of blood vessels in the eye.

Omega-3s may reduce retinopathy, according to the new study, which involved tests on mice.

If the findings apply to people, "simple supplementation [with omega-3 fatty acids] could be a cost-effective intervention benefiting millions of people," says Lois Smith, MD, PhD, in a news release from Children's Hospital Boston.

Smith works in the ophthalmology department of Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Smith and colleagues studied omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in newborn mice.

The body needs omega-3s and omega-6s and must get those fatty acids through diet or supplements.

Western diets tend to be heavy on omega-6s and skimpy on omega-3s.

Omega-6s are found in meat and vegetable oils such as safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and soy oils. Food sources of omega-3s include leafy green vegetables, walnuts, flaxseeds, and fatty fish such as salmon, herring, and sardines.

Omega-3 Experiment

Smith's team added omega-3s or omega-6s to the diets of female mice that had just given birth. The mother mice passed the omega-3s or omega-6s to their newborns through their breast milk.

The omega-3 supplements were given at a dose similar to that of the traditional Japanese diet. The omega-6 supplements were given at a dose like that of a typical Western diet.

The baby mice were exposed to high levels of oxygen for five days, starting when they were 1 week old.

Those conditions put the eye at risk of losing healthy blood vessels, which sets the stage for abnormal blood vessels to develop.

The newborn mice kept more of the healthy blood vessels in their eyes if their mothers' diets were supplemented with omega-3s instead of omega-6s.

With more of their healthy blood vessels intact, the newborn mice in the omega-3 group were less likely to have abnormal blood vessels develop in their eyes.

In short, omega-3s reduced retinopathy before it started. The study shows that the results may be related to omega-3s' anti-inflammatory effects.

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