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Omega fish oils don't improve children's reading skills or memory, study finds

from the University of Birmingham

The impact of omega-3 on reading and working memory in children.


First, despite the misleading headline, this study did NOT involve 'fish oils'. 

The supplements used contained oil derived from algae, providing DHA (at 600mg/day), but none of the other long-chain omega-3 found in fish oils, such as EPA.

Second, this news report has also completely mischaracterised the population studied.

They were NOT 'school children with learning needs such as ADHD'.  Instead (as in the first DOLAB study) they were children aged 7-9 years from mainstream UK schools who were 'underperforming' in reading.

Specifically - this study included children whose word reading scores were in the lowest fifth of the general population for their age. For some reason, the press release (faithfully copied out verbatim in most 'news' articles so far - along with the fishy headline) mis-cites this as 'the bottom quarter'.....

And to correct yet another inaccuracy: no significant improvements in working memory were found in the first DOLAB study either (at least on the primary outcome of change scores).

To provide some further context and background:

Most previous trials of 'omega-3' have involved children with specific learning difficulties such as ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. Two 'meta-analyses' pooling results from such studies have already shown significant - albeit modest - reductions in ADHD-type symptoms from supplementation with the long-chain omega-3 from fish oils (EPA and DHA) in varying proportions.  See:

By contrast, in children from the general school population there remains little or no clear evidence for benefits - although very few such studies have been done. See:

For more details of this latest research, and further information - including links to the earlier DOLAB study and other trials in this area, see:

And for more accurate news coverage than this press release provides, see also:

02 Mar 2018 - Medical Express

New research has found no evidence Omega-3 fish oil supplements help aid or improve the reading ability or memory function of underperforming school-children.

These findings are in contradiction to an earlier study run by the same team using the same supplement.

In the second high-quality trial of its kind, published in PLOS ONE, the researchers found an entirely different result to an earlier study carried out in 2012, where omega-3 supplements were found to have a beneficial effect on the reading ability and working memory of school children with learning needs such as ADHD.

In this second study, the researchers tested children who were in the bottom quarter of ability in reading, and found that fish oil supplements did not have any or very little effect on the children's reading ability or working memory and behaviours.

The team from the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford tested 376 children aged 7-9 years old, learning to read, but in the bottom quarter in terms of their ability.

Half of the children took a daily Omega-3 fish oil supplement and the remaining children took a placebo for 16 weeks.  Their reading and working memories were tested before and after by their parents at home and teachers in school—with no real differences found in the outcomes.

Professor Paul Montgomery, University of Birmingham, who led the research said: "We are all keen to help kids who are struggling at school and in these times of limited resources, my view is that funds should be spent on more promising interventions. The effects here, while good for a few kids, were not substantial for the many."

Dr. Thees Spreckelsen, University of Oxford, Co-Author of the report added: "Fish oil or Omega-3 fatty acids are widely regarded as beneficial. However, the evidence on benefits for children's learning and behaviour is clearly not as strong as previously thought."