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Developmental Disability Awareness Month and the Role of DHA and ARA Fatty Acids in Brain and Retina Development

Every year since 1987, people have started recognizing March as the Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. It is an opportunity to spread awareness about developmental disabilities and highlight the importance of the inclusion of people with unique abilities in all areas of society to create strong and diverse communities.

In this journey of understanding and support, we would like to point the attention on the role of essential fatty acids in brain and retina development.

What are Developmental Disabilities?

Many professionals describe developmental disabilities as physical, emotional, or intellectual disorders that start before birth or in early childhood and may impact day-to-day functioning and are typically lifelong diagnoses.

Common developmental disabilities include autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, hearing or vision loss, learning disorders and ADHD.

It is assumed that the cause is linked to a complex interaction of factors, including genetics, parental health and behavior during pregnancy, or from complications during birth [1-3].

What are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids which the body cannot produce itself but must be ingested from the diet, hence the attribute ‘essential’. They are distinguished into omega-3 and omega-6, based on differences in chemical structure.

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA) are respectively omega-3 and omega-6. From them we derive compounds that perform various functions in the body: e.g. docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – of the omega-3 series – or arachidonic acid (ARA) – of the omega-6 series [4-6].

DHA and ARA: essential fatty acids important in the child’s development

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for the whole life cycle and particularly during the child’s development.

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is known to play a key role in visual and cognitive development and that ARA (arachidonic acid) has important roles in brain, immune and cardiovascular function.

The brain is composed of large amounts of both DHA and ARA. During the third trimester of pregnancy and first year of life, the brain grows rapidly and an adequate supply of both of these fatty acids is thought to be essential for optimal development.

The retina, located at the back of the eye, is responsible for converting light into neural signals that are transmitted to the brain, enabling vision. DHA constitutes a significant portion of the retina’s lipid composition. In infants, DHA deficiency has been linked to impaired visual acuity and may increase the risk of developmental disorders such as retinopathy of prematurity.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are known to play an essential role in the development of the brain and retina. Scientific evidence shows that the intake or supplementation of these fatty acids during pregnancy and early life can influence growth and cognitive performance later in childhood. Deficiencies and imbalances of these nutrients, not only during the developmental phase but throughout the whole life span, have significant effects on brain function. Numerous observational studies have shown a link between childhood developmental disorders and omega-6: omega-3 fatty acid imbalances [4-7].

As we observe Developmental Disability Awareness Month, let us recognize the crucial impact that essential fatty acids have on brain and retina development. Through education, advocacy, and support, we can work together and promote a more inclusive and equitable society for all.


  2. Creating inclusive communities: March is developmental disabilities awareness month – UW Combined Fund Drive
  3. Developmental Disability Awareness Month (March 2024) | Days Of The Year