Jim Langcuster, 334/844-5686


AUBURN -- Eating some fish contaminated by mercury may be offset by the beneficial effects of naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids in fish, according to research by two Auburn University scientists.

Margaret Craig-Schmidt, professor of nutrition and food science, and Chris Newland, Alumni Professor of psychology, who have spent years studying the health and developmental effects of omega-3 fatty acids and methyl mercury found in fish, are challenging conventional notions with their hypothesis.

Craig-Schmidt and Newland, collaborators in research supported by the National Institutes of Health, are exploring the hypothesis that omega-3 fatty acids that occur naturally in fish actually may counter the contaminating effects of methyl mercury -- a heavy metal that concentrates in the muscle tissue of fish.

"It's only preliminary, but one of the things we are beginning to see in our research is that there may be some protection from mercury that is conferred by eating fish," Newland said.

A nutritional biochemist, Craig-Schmidt's research has explored the health benefits of certain fats in nutrition. In particular, she has studied the dietary benefits of docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that is important to retinal and brain development.

Newland, a behavioral neuroscientist, has examined the effects of methyl mercury on nervous system development.

The contentious issue, say the researchers, is that consumers receive conflicting information about the safety and benefits of eating fish.

Oils from certain species of fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, yet health warnings carry cautions against eating fish due to the potential hazards caused by methyl mercury contamination.

"It is important to realize that all fish are not the same," Craig-Schmidt said. She noted that such species as salmon and tuna are good sources of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and they appear to be relatively safe.

Newland says that the conflicting warnings regarding fish consumption are of great concern.

"These advisories are confusing," Newland said. "My concern is that people may throw up their arms in despair and quit eating fish entirely."

Both researchers believe that would be extreme. They say that attaining enough dietary omega-3 is a challenge for millions of Americans who are striving to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease and mental decline that often accompany aging.

It is even a greater challenge, they say, for pregnant women and nursing mothers who want to ensure that their children get adequate amounts of fatty acids during the most critical developmental period.

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