But how the health effects of one such fatty acid -- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) -- works remains unclear, in part because its molecular signaling pathways are only now being understood.
Graphic representation of a potassium transmembrane ion channel.
Credit: Toshinori Hoshi, Ph.D., Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
Toshinori Hoshi, PhD, professor of Physiology, at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues showed, in two papers out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, how fish oils help lower blood pressure via vasodilation at ion channels. In vascular smooth muscle cells, such as those that line blood vessels, ion channels that span the outer membrane of a cell to let such ions as sodium, calcium, and potassium in and out, are critical to maintaining proper vessel pressure.
Omega-3 fatty acids bind directly to a specific group of channels that allow potassium ions to move out, which affects how much voltage is required to open the channel. If omega-3 fatty acids bind to the channel, only a small amount of voltage is needed. This is good for a cell because an open potassium channel means the cell is at rest, and when smooth blood muscle cells are relaxed, blood pressure is at a good level. However, when vessels constrict, blood pressure increases.
The team concluded that these channels have receptors for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and that DHA -- unlike its ethyl ester cousin -- activate the channels and lower blood pressure.
The findings have practical implications for the use of omega-3 fatty acids as nutraceuticals for the general public and also for critically ill patients who may receive omega-3–enriched formulas as part of their nutrition.
The study was supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health (R01GM057654), the German Research Foundation, and Natural Science Foundation of China.Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.
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