Effect of placental function on fatty acid requirements during pregnancy

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The fetus has an absolute requirement for the n-3/n-6 fatty acids and docosahexaenoic acid (22: 6 n-3; DHA) in particular is essential for the development of the brain and retina. Most of the fat deposition in the fetus occurs in the last 10 weeks of pregnancy. The likely rate of DHA utilisation during late pregnancy cannot be met from dietary sources alone in a significant proportion of mothers. De novo synthesis makes up some of the shortfall but the available evidence suggests that the maternal adipose tissue makes a significant contribution to placental transport to the fetus. The placenta plays a crucial role in mobilising the maternal adipose tissue and actively concentrating and channelling the important n-3/n-6 fatty acids to the fetus via multiple mechanisms including selective uptake by the syncytiotrophoblast, intracellular metabolic channelling, and selective export to the fetal circulation. These mechanisms protect the fetus against low long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (LCPUFA) intakes in the last trimester of pregnancy and have the effect of reducing the maternal dietary requirement for preformed DHA at this time. As a result of these adaptations, small changes in the composition of the habitual maternal diet before pregnancy are likely to be more effective in improving LCPUFA delivery to the fetus than large dietary changes in late pregnancy. There is little evidence that DHA intake/status in the second half of pregnancy affects visual and cognitive function in the offspring, but more studies are needed, particularly in children born to vegetarian and vegan and mothers who may have very low intakes of DHA.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1559-1570
Number of pages12
JournalEuropean Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2004


  • pregnancy
  • fatty acid
  • diet
  • requirements
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic)
  • intelligence quotient (IQ)
  • vegetarian
  • fish oil supplementation
  • perfused human placenta
  • human adipose tissue
  • docosahexaenoic acid
  • binding proteins
  • arachidonic acid
  • birth weight
  • randomized trial
  • term infants
  • breast milk


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