Food and Behaviour Research

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30 May 2010 - The Guardian - Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate

Denis Campbell

US academics discover high doses of omega-3 fish oil combat hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder


As so often happens, the media reporting of this study bears little or no resemblance to the actual research carried out.

This was a brain imaging study of healthy, normal boys (NOT children with ADHD), and it was designed to investigate effects on brain function (as assessed via functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) following different doses of omega-3 DHA or placebo.  

It was NOT a 'treatment trial'.  But for reasons of their own, the media have decided to turn this into yet another 'miracle pill' story... with predictable backlash, as exemplified by the following coverage from the tireless Ben Goldacre:
However - it is unfortunate that even the title of the above article inaccurately refers to 'fish oil' (following the misleading news story it focuses on, which made the same error) - whereas the supplements used in this study actually contained DHA derived from algae (as Goldacre, and other critics of bad science reporting, have pointed out) 

And for details of the actual research study, see:

Children can learn better at school by taking omega-3 fish oil supplements which boost their concentration, scientists say.

Boys aged eight to 11 who were given doses once or twice a day of docosahexaenoic acid, an essential fatty acid known as DHA, showed big improvements in their performance during tasks involving attention.

Dr Robert McNamara, of the University of Cincinnati, who led the team of American researchers, said their findings could help pupils to study more effectively and potentially help to tackle both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression. The study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is important because a lack of DHA has been implicated in ADHD and other similar conditions, with poor maternal diet sometimes blamed for the child's deficiency.

ADHD affects an estimated 4%-8% of Britons and can seriously impair a child's education because they have trouble concentrating and are often disruptive in class. A lack of DHA has also been associated with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

"We found that, if you take DHA, you can enhance the function of those brain regions that are involved in paying attention, so it helps people concentrate," said McNamara. "The benefit is that it may represent an intervention that will help children or adults with attention impairments."

The researchers gave 33 US schoolboys 400mg or 1,200mg doses of DHA or a placebo every day for eight weeks. Those who had received the high doses did much better in mental tasks involving mathematical challenges. Brain scans showed that functional activity in their frontal cortex - which controls memory, attention and the ability to plan - increased significantly.

The results, and fact that many people eat too little fish to get enough DHA through their diet, meant it could help all children to improve their learning, added McNamara. "The primary benefit is to treat ADHD and depression, but it could also help people with their memory, learning and attention," he said.