Food and Behaviour Research

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1 November 2003 - The Times: 'Fish oils - What's the evidence?'

by Toby Murcott

CAN FISH OILS IMPROVE DYSLEXIA? WHAT'S THE EVIDENCE?
A trial conducted with 29 children with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suggests that they might. Dr Alexandra Richardson, a research Fellow in physiology at Oxford University, found an improvement in those children given fish oil supplements. The results encouraged her to start a much larger trial.

WHAT ABOUT ADULTS?
There is only anecdotal evidence but Dr Richardson is running another project that is looking at the effect of fish oils on adults with similar conditions and the results are expected next year. Other research has found that fish oils are important for brain development. Problems processing them in the body have been linked to bipolar disorder (manic depression). There is also a clinical trial in progress which tests fish oil as a treatment for epilepsy.

WHAT'S THE MAGIC INGREDIENT?
Fish oils contain many chemicals but attention has focused on two: DHA and EPA, which are omega-3 or n-3 fatty acids. It used to be thought that DHA was the vital ingredient but Dr Richardson now believes EPA is the key. EPA is used by our bodies to control hormone balance and the immune system, both of which are crucial for a healthy brain.

CAN THEY HELP OTHER CONDITIONS?
Fish oils, or more accurately the omega-3 fatty acids they contain, can help to prevent colon cancer, according to Dr Elizabeth Lund, a research scientist at the Institute of Food Research. Studies suggest they can also reduce heart disease and arthritis.

WHY ARE FISH OILS SO SPECIAL?
One theory says that eating fish made us intelligent. Archaeological evidence shows that our ancestors ate a lot of fish and it is suggested that this provided the brain food to develop our intellect. If true, it would also explain why fish oils are important to us today.

ARE THERE SIDE EFFECTS?
There has been some concern about levels of mercury in fish. But there is no evidence to suggest that supplements are a problem as long as you stick to the recommended dose.

Dr Toby Murcott is a former BBC science correspondent