Omega-3 fatty acids from fish can improve attention span, impulsivity in children

BARCELONA, Spain — Many children these days find it difficult to concentrate on a single task for very long. While some doctors are quick to prescribe medications like Adderall for wandering minds, new research finds there may be a more natural solution. Researchers say the omega-3 fatty acid Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) leads to a greater capacity for selective and sustained attention among adolescents.

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), on the other hand, displays a link to lower impulsivity levels. These findings are based on research led by ISGlobal, a center supported by the “la Caixa” Foundation and the Pere Virgili Institute for Health Research (ISPV). Study authors believe that these results confirm the importance of following a diet rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids when it comes to healthy brain development.

Vital structural and functional changes take place in the mind during adolescence, in particular within the prefrontal area, which plays a major role in controlling attention. Meanwhile, omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids are very important in their own right when it comes to robust brain development and functioning. The most common fatty acid in the brain, especially in the prefrontal area, is DHA. The study finds that DHA gets most of what it needs when we eat oily fish.

“Despite the established importance of DHA in brain development, few studies have evaluated whether it plays a role in the attention performance of healthy adolescents,” says Jordi Júlvez, a IISPV researcher and ISGlobal research associate, in a media release. “In addition, the possible role of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), another omega-3 but of plant origin, has not been as extensively studied.”

More evidence to add fish to the children’s menu

Study authors set out to determine if a higher intake of DHA and ALA would correlate with increased attention. The team analyzed a group of 332 adolescents from a variety of different local schools in Barcelona. The children took part in computer tests to measure their reaction times. This helped researchers determine selective and sustained attention capacity, inhibition capacity in the face of distracting stimuli, and impulsivity.

Adolescents also answered questions gauging their dieting habits and gave blood samples. The blood allowed study authors to measure red blood cell levels of DHA and ALA, considered objective and all-around valid indicators of long-term dietary intake of these fats.

The findings indicate more DHA contributes to greater selective and sustained attention and inhibitory attention. Conversely, ALA did not have an association with attention performance, but it did have a link to lower impulsivity.

“The role of ALA in attention control is still unclear, but this finding may be clinically relevant, as impulsivity is a feature of several psychiatric conditions, such as ADHD,” explains first study author Ariadna Pinar-Martí.

“Our study indicates that dietary DHA most likely plays a role in attention-requiring tasks, but further studies are needed to confirm a cause-effect, as well as to understand the role of ALA,” concludes Júlvez.

These findings are yet another addition to previous studies suggesting the consumption of fish (the main source of DHA) during adolescence can be beneficial for the mind.

The study is published in the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

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