Antioxidant Mechanisms of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) -Blog 1

Our research study, “Antioxidant Mechanisms of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA),” will involve a mass spectrometric analysis of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) over time.  DHA is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid and an essential structural component of the human brain, skin, retina, and sperm.  It is also prevalent in breast milk and fish oil, and these may serve as sources of nutritional intake.  Polyunsaturated fatty acids such as DHA are generally regarded as powerful antioxidants that tend to bind free radicals, preventing them from destructively oxidizing living tissue.  This quality leads to a vast array of health benefits; therefore, understanding the nature and degree of DHA’s chemical reactivity is certainly worthwhile.  A previous study found that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a different polyunsaturated fatty acid also found in fish oil, was very reactive in air, transforming into a variety of oxidized products.  The current study extends that analysis to DHA and determines its reactivity.  Like EPA, we theorize DHA will take on oxygen when exposed to air.  Dr. Upmacis and I will test this hypothesis by examining the mass changes that DHA undergoes with time.  Ultimately, a finding of DHA’s superior reactivity in air would imply increased antioxidant powers, underscoring the positive implications to health and longevity.  We also plan to study the interactions between DHA and a radical species such as nitrous oxide radical (NO) to gain an appreciation of the antioxidant mechanisms at play within the body.


This project is a prime example of form’s effect on function.  Electronic structure determines atomic properties and thereby elemental behavior.  I expect to learn a great deal about the role of chemical structure in determining antioxidant properties, and the health benefits this conveys.  I also anticipate learning several techniques in instrumental analysis such as mass spectrometry.  More importantly, I am excited to explore and understand the research process firsthand while Dr. Upmacis and I navigate uncharted territory and try to make sense of it!


Our foray into this process begins with data collection.  This is accomplished by exposing DHA to air for a period of five days.  Each day, a diluted sample is prepared and injected into the mass spectrometer to see how the compound changes over time.  By deflecting charged sample ions toward a collection plate, the mass spectrometer essentially displays a spectrum of atomic masses that represent constituent molecules.  As the sample ages, our mass data evolves, pointing to fundamental changes occurring to the molecules in our sample.  Our job will be to interpret this mass data, deduce the molecules they represent, and model the changing relationships between the data.  Dr. Upmacis and I have been hard at work this past week collecting our data in the mass spectrometer, recording our observations, and completing this phase of the study.   In the coming weeks, we hope to continue using the mass spectrometer to investigate the interactions between DHA and nitrous oxide radical (NO).   Stay tuned!

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