Omega-3 fish oil supplements may improve attention in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) just as much as drug treatments, but only in those whose blood levels of omega-3 are low, a new trial conducted by researchers from King’s College London has found.
ADHD is a common brain condition that affects an estimated 3 to 7% of people worldwide. Symptoms can include problems with attention and impulsivity that cause difficulties in academic, work and personal relationships.
It’s thought that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in the development of ADHD. Omega-3 fatty acids, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential fatty acids for our brain and body, and have been closely associated with cognitive function and academic performance.
For the study, researchers from King’s and from the China Medical University in Taiwan conducted a randomized controlled trial with 92 children aged 6 to 18 with ADHD.
They were given either high doses (1.2 grams) of the omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), or a placebo, for 12 weeks.
Results showed that children with the lowest blood levels of EPA showed improvements in focused attention and vigilance after taking the omega-3 supplements.
Standard treatments for children with ADHD include stimulants such as Ritalin, known generically as methylphenidate, which can improve levels of concentration and focus in ADHD patients.
The team said that while the amount of improvement in attention and vigilance from methylphenidate is generally 0.22 to 0.42, the effect seen in children with low levels of EPA in the trial was larger - at 0.89 for focused attention and 0.83 for vigilance.
But in children with normal EPA levels, omega-3 supplements did not improve ADHD symptoms, and in those with high blood levels of EPA, the supplements had negative effects on impulsivity symptoms.
The scientists warned parents should not give their children fish oil supplements without checking first with a doctor, and stressed that omega-3 levels can be checked with a blood test.
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