The effects of dietary docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supply during infancy on later cognitive development of healthy term infants were evaluated in a randomized clinical trial of infant formula milk supplemented with 0.35% DHA or with 0.36% DHA and 0.72% arachidonic acid (AA), or control formula which provided no DHA or AA.

Fifty-six 18-month-old children (26 male, 30 female) who were enrolled in the trial within the first 5 days of life and fed the assigned diet to 17 weeks of age were tested using the Bayley Scales of Infant Development, 2nd edition (BSID-II) (Bayley 1993) at the Retina Foundation of the Southwest, Dallas, TX. These children had also been assessed at 4 months and 12 months of age for blood fatty-acid composition, sweep visual evoked potential (VEP) acuity, and forced-choice preferential looking (FPL) acuity (Birch et al. 1998). Supplementation of infant formula with DHA+AA was associated with a mean increase of 7 points on the Mental Development Index (MDI) of the BSID-II. Both the cognitive and motor subscales of the MDI showed a significant developmental age advantage for DHA- and DHA+AA-supplemented groups over the control group.

While a similar trend was found for the language subscale, it did not reach statistical significance. Neither the Psychomotor Development Index nor the Behavior Rating Scale of the BSID-II showed significant differences among diet groups, consistent with a specific advantage of DHA supplementation on mental development.

Significant correlations between plasma and RBC-DHA at 4 months of age but not at 12 months of age and MDI at 18 months of age suggest that early dietary supply of DHA was a major dietary determinant of improved performance on the MDI.