Omega-3 fatty acids could help to prevent a condition in the eye which can lead to blindness, researchers claim.
Retinopathy is a disease which begins with abnormal blood vessel growth in the eye. As it progresses the abnormal cells pull the retina away from its supporting layer, ultimately causing blindness.
In tests on mice with the condition US scientists found that increasing uptake of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA – found in fish oil supplements – may protect against blindness.
Mice fed on the omega-3 diet rich in DHA and EPA had 40 to 50 per cent less initial vessel loss in the retina than the omega-6 fed mice.
As omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the retina, the researchers believe that just a two per cent change in dietary omega-3 intake is sufficient to decrease disease severity by 50 per cent.
"Our studies suggest that after initial loss, vessels re-grew more quickly and efficiently in the omega-3-fed mice," said lead author Dr Kip Connor of Children's Hospital Boston's Department of Ophthalmology and Harvard Medical School.
"This increased the oxygen supply to retinal tissue, resulting in a dampening of the inflammatory 'alarm' signals that lead to pathologic vessel growth."
Clinical trials at Children's Hospital Boston will soon begin testing the effects of omega-3 supplementation in premature babies, who are at risk for vision loss.
"If omega-3 fatty acids, or these anti-inflammatory mediators, are as effective in humans as they are in mice, simple supplementation could be a cost-effective intervention benefiting millions of people," said senior investigator Dr Lois Smith. "The cost of blindness is enormous."
Dr Paul Sieving, director of the National Eye Institute, added: "This study… gives us a better understanding of the biological processes that lead to retinopathy and how to intervene to prevent or slow disease. It will be interesting to see if human clinical trials show similar beneficial effects."
The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.