In Profile: Richard Bazinet

Professor Richard Bazinet, by Geoffrey Vendeville
Professor Richard Bazinet

Did you know that the brain is one of the fattest organs in your body? Almost half of an average brain is made up of fat. Like many other mysteries of the human brain, however, the role and function of some brain lipids and fatty acids are not yet fully understood. But research by Professor Richard Bazinet in U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences may unlock some of these secrets. 

Bazinet’s team focuses on two fats considered particularly important for brain function: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). Sufficient levels of these two acids are key to neurological health. However, the brain cannot produce these fatty acids on its own. Maternal milk and fish oil are good sources of DHA, while dietary animal sources — meat, eggs and dairy — help provide the body and brain with ARA. 

Experts in this field are still trying to understand how the brain regulates levels of these fats. Bazinet explains that his current research focuses on ways a healthy brain acquires adequate levels of these lipids. 

“In healthy adults, the levels of these fatty acids are very steady: our brain uses a little bit of them and then replaces the missing amounts,” says Bazinet, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Brain Lipid Metabolism. “The case of newborns and very young children is not fully explored, but we predict that that they have a much higher requirement for acquiring DHA and ARA, as their brains are growing.”

Bazinet says that understanding the exact differences in brain fat uptake between adults and infants is a major knowledge gap. Because his research previously focused on brain lipid metabolism in adults, he is excited to partner with paediatric experts at the Lawson Centre to focus on the lipid requirements of babies’ brains.

“We already have tested models, tools, and methodologies in place that could apply to questions concerning infants’ lipid nutrition,” says Bazinet. “By establishing connections with industry partners, government agencies, and clinicians through the Lawson Centre, we can extend our work to try to solve critical challenges in neurological development linked to nutrition.”