Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Slow ALS Progression, Reduce Death Risk

Consuming alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseeds, walnuts, and some oils, could slow the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and reduce the risk of death, according to a study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. ALA may have neuroprotective effects beneficial for ALS patients.

A new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reveals that consuming omega-3 fatty acids, particularly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), might help slow down the progression of disease in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The study is slated to be published on June 21, 2023, in the journal Neurology.

Lead author Kjetil Bjornevik, assistant professor of epidemiology and nutrition, stated, “Prior findings from our research group have shown that a diet high in ALA and increased blood levels of this fatty acid may decrease the risk of developing ALS. In this study, we found that among people living with ALS, higher blood levels of ALA were also associated with a slower disease progression and a lower risk of death within the study period. These findings, along with our previous research, suggest that this fatty acid may have neuroprotective effects that could benefit people with ALS.”

The study involved 449 individuals with ALS participating in a clinical trial. The participants’ symptoms and disease progression were assessed and scored from 0 to 40, with higher scores reflecting less severe symptoms. Omega-3 fatty acid levels in participants’ blood were measured, and participants were divided into four groups based on these levels. The researchers followed up after 18 months to evaluate the participants’ physical functionality and survival.

The study found that ALA, more than any other omega-3 fatty acid, was closely associated with slower decline and reduced death risk. Among the 126 participants who passed away within the study’s 18 months, 33% had the lowest ALA levels, whereas 19% had the highest ALA levels. Taking into account age, sex, ethnicity, BMI, symptom duration, and family history of ALS, the researchers concluded that participants with the highest ALA levels had a 50% lower risk of death during the study compared to those with the lowest levels.

Eicosapentaenoic acid, another omega-3 fatty acid found in fatty fish and fish oil, and linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, were also connected to reduced death risk during the study.

Senior author Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, commented, “The link our study found between diet and ALS is intriguing. We are now reaching out to clinical investigators to promote a randomized trial to determine whether ALA is beneficial in people with ALS. Obtaining funding will be challenging, because ALA is not a patentable drug, but we hope to get it done.”

The study received support from a grant from the ALS Association and had co-author Marianna Cortese, senior research scientist in the Department of Nutrition.

Full Study: “Plasma alpha-linolenic acid and ALS progression in the EMPOWER trial,” Kjetil Bjornevik, Marianna Cortese, Jeremy D. Furtado, Sabrina Paganoni, Michael A. Schwarzschild, Merit Cudkowicz, Alberto Ascherio, Neurology, June 21, 2023.

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