Considerable amounts of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs), particularly arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, 22:6n-3), are deposited in fetal tissues during pregnancy; and this process is facilitated by placental delivery. Nevertheless, the mechanisms involved in LC-PUFA placental transfer remain unclear.

Stable isotope techniques have been used to study human placental fatty acid transfer in vivo. These studies have shown a significantly higher ratio of (13)C-DHA in cord to maternal plasma compared with other fatty acids, which reflects a higher placental DHA transfer. In addition, a selective DHA accumulation in placental tissue, relative to other fatty acids, has been reported.

The materno-fetal transfer of fatty acids is a slow process that requires ≥12 h. A high incorporation of dietary (13)C-DHA into maternal plasma phospholipids appears to be important for placental uptake and transfer. DHA in cord blood lipids correlates with placental messenger RNA expression of fatty acid transport protein (FATP)-4, compatible with a role of FATP-4 in DHA transfer. Impaired materno-fetal LC-PUFA transport has been proposed in pregnancies complicated by abnormal placental function (eg, due to gestational diabetes mellitus or intrauterine growth restriction), which should be addressed in future studies.

Given that placental DHA transfer is important for child outcomes, elucidation of its potential modulation by transport mechanisms, maternal diet, and disease appears to be important.