Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are known to have therapeutic potential in several neurological and psychiatric disorders. However, the molecular mechanisms of action underlying these effects are not well elucidated.

We previously showed that alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) reduced ischemic brain damage after a single treatment. To follow-up this finding, we investigated whether subchronic ALA treatment promoted neuronal plasticity.

Three sequential injections with a neuroprotective dose of ALA increased neurogenesis and expression of key proteins involved in synaptic functions, namely, synaptophysin-1, VAMP-2, and SNAP-25, as well as proteins supporting glutamatergic neurotransmission, namely, V-GLUT1 and V-GLUT2. These effects were correlated with an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) protein levels, both in vitro using neural stem cells and hippocampal cultures and in vivo, after subchronic ALA treatment. Given that BDNF has antidepressant activity, this led us to test whether subchronic ALA treatment could produce antidepressant-like behavior.

ALA-treated mice had significantly reduced measures of depressive-like behavior compared with vehicle-treated animals, suggesting another aspect of ALA treatment that could stimulate functional stroke recovery by potentially combining acute neuroprotection with long-term repair/compensatory plasticity.

Indeed, three sequential injections of ALA enhanced protection, either as a pretreatment, wherein it reduced post-ischemic infarct volume 24 h after a 1-hour occlusion of the middle cerebral artery or as post-treatment therapy, wherein it augmented animal survival rates by threefold 10 days after ischemia.