Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), which comprise 25-30% of the fatty acids in the human brain, are necessary for normal brain development and function. PUFA cannot be synthesized de novo and must be supplied to the brain by the plasma. It is necessary to know the PUFA content and composition of the various plasma lipids and lipoproteins in order to understand how these fatty acids are taken up and metabolized by the brain.

Human plasma free fatty acid (FFA) ordinarily contains about 15% linoleic acid (18:2n-6) and 1% arachidonic acid (AA) (20:4n-6). Plasma triglycerides, phospholipids, and cholesterol esters also are rich in linoleic acid, and the phospholipids and cholesterol esters contain about 10% AA. These findings suggest that the brain probably can obtain an adequate supply of n-6 PUFA from either the plasma FFA or lipoproteins. By contrast, the plasma ordinarily contains only one-tenth as much n-3 PUFA, and the amounts range from 1% alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) in the plasma FFA to 2% docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3, DHA) in the plasma phospholipids.

The main n-3 PUFA in the brain is DHA. Therefore, if the plasma FFA is the primary source of fatty acid for the brain, much of the DHA must be synthesized in the brain from n-3 PUFA precursors. Alternatively, if the brain requires large amounts of preformed DHA, the phospholipids contained in plasma lipoproteins are the most likely source.