The essential fatty acids (EFAs), particularly the n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPs), are important for brain development during both the fetal and postnatal period. They are also increasingly seen to be of value in limiting the cognitive decline during aging.

EFA deficiency was first shown over 75 years ago, but the more subtle effects of the n-3 fatty acids in terms of skin changes, a poor response to linoleic acid supplementation, abnormal visual function, and peripheral neuropathy were only discovered later. Both n-3 and n-6 LCPs play important roles in neuronal growth, development of synaptic processing of neural cell interaction, and expression of genes regulating cell differentiation and growth. The fetus and placenta are dependent on maternal EFA supply for their growth and development, with docosahexaenomic acid (DHA)-supplemented infants showing significantly greater mental and psychomotor development scores (breast-fed children do even better).

Dietary DHA is needed for the optimum functional maturation of the retina and visual cortex, with visual acuity and mental development seemingly improved by extra DHA.

Aging is also associated with decreased brain levels of DHA: fish consumption is associated with decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and the reported daily use of fish-oil supplements has been linked to improved cognitive function scores, but confirmation of these effects is needed.