Food and Behaviour Research

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The role of omega 3 fatty acids in behaviour, cognition and mood

Richardson, A.J. (2003) Scandinavian Journal of Nutrition.  47(2) 92-98  


Evidence is reviewed here for the proposal that many common developmental and psychiatric conditions - including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autistic spectrum disorders, as well as depression, bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder and schizophrenia – may involve functional deficiencies of certain highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA).

These conditions often overlap within individuals and cluster in the same families, and shared biological risk factors could include inefficiencies of fatty acid metabolism that increase the usual dietary requirements for HUFA.

Research indicates that functional deficiencies of omega-3 HUFA in particular may underlie some of the abnormalities of behaviour, learning and mood associated with these conditions. These fatty acids have become relatively scarce in many modern diets but are absolutely essential to normal brain development and function.

Initial results from controlled trials indicate that treatment with omega-3, and particularly EPA, can be helpful in the management of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and possibly Huntington’s disease. Preliminary evidence suggests benefits in ADHD and dyslexia, but further trials are still needed in these and related developmental conditions such as dyspraxia and autism.

Omega-3 HUFA are very safe and have many general health benefits, although medical advice should be sought before taking any food supplement. Given the variability within developmental and psychiatric disorders, omega-3 fatty acids cannot be expected to help everyone with a particular diagnostic label. Nutritional approaches should always be seen as complementary to other methods of management for these conditions, but existing evidence indicates that many members of the general population would benefit from an increased dietary intake of omega-3.