Omega-3 fatty acids, already known for improving heart health, are now being credited for protecting the brain against Parkinson's disease, according to a study by Université Laval researchers in Canada.

The study, led by Frederic Calon and Francesca Cicchetti, is the first to demonstrate the protective effect of a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids against the neurodegenerative disorder, the researchers claim.

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Researchers found when mice were fed an omega-3 rich diet, they seemed immune to the effect of MPTP, a toxic compound that causes the same damage to the brain as Parkinson’s.

“This compound, which has been used for more than 20 years in Parkinson’s research, works faster than the disease itself and is just as effective in targeting and destroying the dopamine-producing neurons in the brain,” noted Calon in a news release.

In contrast, another group of mice that were fed an ordinary diet developed the characteristic symptoms of the disease when injected with MPTP, including a 31 percent drop in dopamine-producing neurons and a 50 percent decrease in dopamine levels.

“This demonstrates both the importance of diet on the brain’s fatty acid composition and the brain’s natural inclination for omega-3 fatty acids,” said Calon.

The omega-3 fatty acid DHA appeared most effective in preventing Parkinson's.

Parkinson’s is caused by the progressive death of the neurons responsible for producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter closely linked with movement control. The disease is usually diagnosed when 50 to 80 percent of these neurons are already dead, and there is currently no medication to stop that process. An estimated 1.5 million Americans currently have the disease.

The study is published in the online edition of the FASEB Journal, the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.