Food and Behaviour Research

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A double-blind, placebo-controlled study investigating the effects of omega-3 supplementation in children aged 8-10 years from a mainstream school population

Kirby A, Woodward A, Jackson S, Wang Y, Crawford MA. (2010) Res Dev Disabil.  31(3): 718-30. Epub 2010 Feb 18. 

Web URL: View this and related abstracts via PubMed here

Abstract:

Despite the increased interest in the effects of omega-3 supplementation on children's learning and behaviour, there are a lack of controlled studies of this kind that have utilised a typically developing population.

This study investigated the effects of omega-3 supplementation in 450 children aged 8-10 years old from a mainstream school population, using a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled design. Participants were supplemented with either active supplements (containing docosahexaenoic acid, DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA) or a placebo for 16 weeks. Cheek cell fatty acid levels were recorded pre- and post-supplementation and a range of cognitive tests and parent and teacher questionnaires were used as outcome measures.

After supplementation, changes in the relationship between omega-6 and omega-3 were significant in the active group. Despite the wide range of cognitive and behavioural outcome measures employed, only three significant differences between groups were found after 16 weeks, one of which was in favour of the placebo condition. Exploring the associations between changes in fatty acid levels and changes in test and questionnaire scores also produced equivocal results.

These findings are discussed in relation to previous findings with clinical populations and future implications for research.

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

This randomised controlled trial found little or no effect on a range of measures of behaviour and cognition in 450 healthy children from mainstream schools following supplementation with omega-3 from fish oils vs placebo.

While this is just what might be expected in a cohort of children who were not pre-selected for showing any particular behaviour or learning problems, it is nonetheless an important finding given the extraordinary amount of media 'hype' that has surrounded this area for some years now, initially provoked by some extraordinary reports of trials that were neither controlled nor published. See:


It is particularly commendable that the researchers also included a new (and relatively non-invasive) measure of fatty acid status in order to collect pilot data on this.  The only well-validated methods currently require venous blood samples - which in the UK are considered unethical to collect from children (unless required for medical reasons).

This issue adds to the difficulties of carrying out meaningful research in this area, as (1) any effects of supplementation would be expected to vary on children's initial omega-3 / omega-6 status, and (2) without objective measures it is not possible to assess 'compliance' in terms of delivery or absorption issues.

See the associated news article here:


See also the related research: