Omega-3 fatty acids help improve boys' attention spans, research shows

Research shows Omega-3 fatty acids helped improve attention spans of boys with or without ADHD

In boys with and without Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, new research has found that an extra daily dose of Omega-3 fatty acids reduced symptoms of inattention.

The study found that in a small clinical trial involving boys 8 to 14 years old, parents rated their son's ability to pay attention more highly if the child's diet was supplemented for 16 weeks with the long-chain fatty acid than if he got a placebo instead.

Conducted in the Netherlands and published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the new research is in line with studies that have found a welter of neuropsychological benefits to Omega-3 supplementation.

In the current study, 40 subjects got an average of 650 mg per day of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and 650 mg of Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) -- two different kinds of Omega-3s -- in margarine. Half had been diagnosed with ADHD, and most continued with their stimulant medication while in the trial. The other half were normally-developing kids whose age, IQ and body mass indices were similar to those in the ADHD group.

The subjects who got margarine without the Omega-3 supplement (the placebo group) were equally divided between those with ADHD and those who had no such diagnosis.

The notable finding was that, whether or not they had ADHD, boys who got the Omega-3 supplement were rated by their parents as more attentive.

"Our results indicate that typically developing children also benefit" from Omega-3 supplementation, "showing the importance of Omega-3 polyunsatuirated fatty acid intake during development in general," the authors wrote. They added that Omega-3s "may be useful as an augmentation to standard pharmacological therapies" as well.  And they cited recent research that found that children medicated for ADHD symptoms were able to reduce their doses of stimulant medication when they added Omega-3s to their diet.

The fatty acid found plentifully in fish oil has been found to enhance the effectiveness of antidepressant medication in those with depression, to delay first psychotic break in adolescents at high risk of serious mental illness, and to boost working memory performance in young, healthy subjects. Other studies have found it useful as an adjunct to stimulant medication in children with ADHD.

But the benefits of Omega-3 supplementation remain uncertain, as other studies have come up short of evidence that it improves mental health and cognitive performance.

Those conflicting findings have deepened the mystery of whether, how and why Omega-3 works to improve neurocognitive function.

And the authors of the current study came no closer to answering that question. They hypothesized that boosting a child's Omega-3 intake would raise the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine in his brain. But when they tested their subjects' urine for a surrogate measure of dopamine turnover, they found no differences between subjects who got the Omega-3s and those who got the placebo.

The researchers also found no differences between those who got Omega-3s and those who got the placebo when they put a subgroup of subjects into a brain scanner and had them perform a task requiring sustained mental control. And while parental surveys suggested that Omega-3s had helped boost attention across both groups, parents reported no significant changes in their sons' rule-breaking behavior or aggressive behavior.

Because DHA is plentiful in the brain, researchers have long speculated that this component of fish oil is most important for the fatty acid's neuropsychiatric effects. But the current authors cited research, and some of their own findings, to suggest that equal doses of DHA and EPA work best to improve cognition.

Mind-body connections are powerful, and I write about them all the time. Follow me on Twitter @LATMelissaHealy and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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