Study: Omega-3 fish oil just as effective at improving attention in some children as ADHD drugs

LONDON — For years, people with trouble concentrating have been described as having “the attention span of a goldfish.” Ironically, a new international study finds that omega-3 fish oil can actually treat ADHD symptoms in certain children and improve attention just as much, or more, than many leading medications. However, the research team caution that their findings only apply to children with low levels of omega-3 in their blood.

The same research group, consisting of scientists from both King’s College London and China Medical University in Taichung, Taiwan, had already conducted previous research that found children with an omega-3 deficiency are more likely to experience more severe ADHD symptoms.

For the study, 92 children diagnosed with ADHD between the ages of 6-18 were separated into two groups. The first group received high doses of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) for 12 weeks, while the other group was given a placebo for the same amount of time.

The researchers discovered the children in the experimental group who already had low levels of EPA in their blood improved significantly in focused attention and vigilance scores. Conversely, children in the experimental group with normal EPA levels actually saw their impulsivity tendencies worsen.

“Our results suggest that fish oil supplements are at least as effective for attention as conventional pharmacological treatments among those children with ADHD who have omega-3 deficiency. On the other hand, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and parents should always consult with their children’s psychiatrists since our study suggests there could be negative effects for some children,” comments co-lead researcher Dr. Jane Chang in a release.

With these varied results in mind, the study’s authors say that parents considering omega-3 supplements for their children with ADHD must consult with a doctor beforehand to confirm if the child has low levels of omega-3 in the first place. It’s fairly easy to detect such a deficiency through the identification of dry skin, eczema, or dry eyes. Technically, a blood test would work as well, but as of right now this type of test is only available for research purposes.

One of the most common prescriptions offered to children dealing with ADHD is methylphenidate (Ritalin), which has an improvement effect size regarding attention and vigilance of 0.22-0.42. Comparatively, the effect sizes among children with an omega-3 deficiency who received fish oil supplements was 0.89 for focused attention and 0.83 for vigilance.

It’s also noteworthy that this study was conducted in Taiwan, where people typically eat larger amounts of fish in comparison to the typical American or European diet. This is important because children with ADHD from Western countries have displayed average blood-levels of EPA that are lower than the average in this study, indicating that omega-3 supplements may help a larger portion of Western children dealing with ADHD.

“The omega-3 supplements only worked in children that had lower levels of EPA in their blood, as if the intervention was replenishing a lack of this important nutrient. For those children with omega-3 deficiency, fish oil supplements could be a preferable option to standard stimulant treatments. Our study sets an important precedent for other nutritional interventions, and we can start bringing the benefits of ‘personalized psychiatry’ to children with ADHD,” adds senior researcher professor Carmine Pariante.

The study is published in the scientific journal Translational Psychiatry.

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John Anderer

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