Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, you know that omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be an integral part of a healthy diet. The benefits are most often associated with the cardiovascular system, but research is suggesting multiple other benefits—and Robert McNamara, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, is at the forefront of that research. He took the time to answer some questions about his work.
When did you come to UC, and what brought you here?
"I arrived at UC in 2004 when I joined the Department of Psychiatry (now Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience) at the associate professor level. Prior to coming to UC, I had worked at Eli Lilly and Company in the clinical neuroscience laboratories, where I received training in antidepressant clinical trial development, and prior to that I was an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. My research into the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders was a good fit for the strong research programs in the Department of Psychiatry at UC, and I felt this was a great opportunity to further develop my research into the clinical arena."
Tell us about your current research focus on omega-3 fatty acids and what attracted you to it.
"My laboratory currently investigates the role of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency in the pathoetiology of recurrent neuropsychiatric disorders using animal models, postmortem brain tissue and preclinical and clinical neuroimaging techniques. Moreover, we are investigating the effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on functional brain activation patterns and symptom severity in children and adolescents with recurrent affective disorders, including major depression and bipolar disorder. I was originally attracted to omega-3 fatty acid deficiency as a potential pathogenic mechanism in psychiatric disorders based on a body of evidence that suggested that omega-3 deficiency during perinatal development reproduced many neurochemical alterations that are thought to underlie psychiatric disorders, including changes in serotonin and dopamine. Moreover, because consuming omega-3 fatty acids via fish oil has multiple health benefits, it is ideally suited for treating psychiatric patients who are typically at greater risk for developing cardiovascular and metabolic disorders."
What implications might your research have on mental health?
"Recognizing that the brain is predominantly composed of lipids, and that our diet is the major determinant of the composition of these lipids and can be modified to promote mental health, is a paradigm shift from the conventional pharmacological approach that currently dominates mental health practice. Indeed, many of the consequences of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency on brain neurochemistry are opposite to those produced by conventional psychiatric medications, and suggest that these medications are treating neurochemical abnormalities arising from omega-3 fatty acid deficiency. Moreover, unlike omega-3 fatty acids, many medications have adverse side effects, ranging from increased suicidality to obesity, which are clearly undesirable to patients and their families. Hence, omega-3 fatty acids may come to serve as an effective and safe first-line treatment for psychiatric disorders in mental health practice and may ultimately serve to protect against developing these disorders in the first place."
Is your own diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids?
"Soon after I became convinced of the importance of omega-3 fatty acids for brain development and function, as well as for cardiovascular health, I and my family, including my daughter (now 8), began taking fish oil capsules daily. I also give my dog fish oil weekly. I am happy to say that my blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids are similar to those observed in people living in Japan, where the prevalence rates of heart disease and depression are a small fraction of those observed in the US."
Tell us a bit about yourself (hobbies/interests/etc.)
"My work on omega-3 fatty acids is all consuming and has become my primary interest and hobby. If there were more time in a day, I suppose I would finally learn how to play guitar and start a Jimi Hendrix cover band."