Boys with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may benefit from the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and some vegetable oils, a small European study suggests.
Those who regularly ate an omega-3-loaded margarine experienced an improvement in their ability to pay attention, compared with boys who did not, researchers report in the March 19 issue of Neuropsychopharmacology.
The results suggest that parents might help children with ADHD by adding foods rich in omega-3's to their diet, or by giving them a fish oil supplement, said lead author Dienke Bos, a postdoctoral researcher with the Brain Center Rudolf Magnus at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands.
"It most likely wouldn't hurt to try using omega-3 supplements in kids together with their medication, as it might give some extra alleviation" of ADHD symptoms, Bos said.
However, the improvement in the boys' attention was not huge, and omega-3's did not seem to help other ADHD-related symptoms like impulse control or aggression, said Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Read: Omega-3: a solution to ADHD?
Parents should not replace their kids' ADHD medication with omega-3s, Bos and Barkley said.
"My opinion at the moment is that if there is any benefit, it is modest, nowhere near what one gets with [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]-approved medications," Barkley said.
Boys in the study without ADHD who consumed omega-3's also seemed to benefit in terms of attention.
Omega-3 fatty acids are mainly found in fatty fish like trout, herring and salmon, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also are found in soybean and canola oils, and in walnuts and flaxseed.
Prior research has shown the potential benefits of omega-3s in preventing heart disease, according to the National Institutes of Health. The polyunsaturated fats also might help a wide variety of other health problems, although study results have been inconclusive.
In the United States, about 5.9 million children younger than 18 have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the CDC. It is one of the most common childhood psychiatric conditions.
Read: Omega-3 improves behaviour in ADHD children
How the study was conducted
In this study, researchers recruited 40 Dutch boys between ages 8 and 14 who had been diagnosed with ADHD, along with 39 typically developing boys.
All were asked to eat 10 grams (about one-third of an ounce) of margarine every day. Half of the boys in each group ate a margarine with 650 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, while the rest had plain margarine.
Parents were asked to fill out standard questionnaires that assess a child's behaviour for signs of ADHD, and MRI brain scans were taken of the children.
By the end of the 16-week study, all boys who ate omega-3-rich margarine exhibited improved attention, compared with the boys eating plain margarine, researchers found.
Dr. Alex Strauss is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. "It seemed to improve the attention in individuals both with and without ADHD, so it sounds like there might be some general benefit to the brain," he said.
Therefore, it wouldn't hurt if parents made omega-3 fatty acids part of every child's diet, since there are no downsides to reasonable consumption and a number of potential benefits, Strauss said.
Whether kids receive their omega-3's in food or pills is another matter. Fish oil supplements are good because a person knows the dose of omega-3's they will receive, but food sources of omega-3s might be more complete, Bos said.
"On the one hand, using fish oil supplements, you would be able to take in much higher dosages of fatty acids at a time compared to eating fish," Bos said. "On the other hand, fish oil supplements only contain limited types of fatty acids. Fish contains many more types of fatty acids, and it has also been suggested that this combination with other fatty acids results in a better absorption of the omega-3 fatty acids we are interested in."
Researchers aren't sure why omega-3's appeared to help battle inattentiveness, but Bos noted that omega-3's are an important building block in the brain. The fatty acids are abundantly present in the brain's cell membranes, where they are thought to facilitate the transmission of neural signals, he said.
There are no follow-up trials currently planned, Bos said, although Strauss and Barkley said the findings warrant further study.
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