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Fatty acid metabolism in neurodevelopmental disorder: a new perspective on associations between attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia and the autistic spectrum

Richardson, A.J. and Ross, M.A. (2000) Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 63 1-9 

Web URL: View this and related abstracts via Pubmed here


There is increasing evidence that abnormalities of fatty acid and membrane phospholipid metabolism could play a part in a wide range of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders.

This proposal is discussed here in relation to attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia) and the autistic spectrum. These are among the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood, with significant implications for society as well as for those directly affected. However, controversy still surrounds both the identification and management of these conditions, and while their aetiology is recognized as being complex and multifactorial, little progress has yet been made in elucidating predisposing factors at the biological level.

An overview is provided here of the contents of this Special Issue, which contains a selection of reports from a unique multidisciplinary workshop involving both researchers and clinicians. Its purpose was to explore the possibility that ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism fall within a phospholipid spectrum of disorders.

This proposal could explain the high degree of co-morbidity between these conditions, their aggregation within families and relation to other psychiatric disorders, and a range of associated features that are already well known at a clinical level.

The existing evidence for fatty acid abnormalities in these disorders is summarized, and new approaches are outlined that have the potential to improve both the identification and the management of these and related neurodevelopmental and psychiatric conditions.


This introductory review forms part of a Special Issue, arising from the proceedings of a unique multi-disciplinary conference on 'Fatty Acids in Neurodevelopmental Disorders', co-organised by Dr Alex Richardson for the Highland Psychiatric Research Group.

It explains the theory and rationale, and summarises preliminary evidence. for the proposal that deficiences or imbalances of omega-3 and omega-6 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) may play a role in childhood neurodevelopmental disorders including ADHD, autism, dyspraxia (developmental co-ordination disorder or DCD) and dyslexia (specific reading difficulties).

All of these conditions show a high degree of both clinical and genetic association not only with each other, but with
  • other mental health conditions in which fatty acid abnormalities have already been implicated - including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, among others; and
  • various physical health conditions - most notably allergies and immune disorders - in which deficiencies or imbalances of omega-3 and omega-6 LC-PUFA are also thought to play a role. 
Adequate supplies of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for normal brain development and function, and must be provided by diet. However, modern diets are relatively lacking in omega-3 - particularly the long chain forms (EPA and DHA) found in fish and seafood; and while they usually provide an excess of short-chain omega-6 (found in vegetable oils), conversion of this within the body to the biologically essentially longer-chain forms (AA and DGLA) is not efficient, and can be imapired by diet and lifestyle as well as genetic factors.

Preliminary evidence indicates that omega-3 (and possibly omega-6) LC-PUFA deficiencies may be unusually common in children and adults with dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and Autism - and may contribute to some of the core symptoms of these conditions, as well as to associated physical health symptoms.

Converging evidence suggests that such deficiencies may reflect abnormalities of fatty acid metabolism that increase dietary needs for these essential fats - and that dietary supplementation may therefore be of benefit in these conditions. 

Futther research, including clinical trials of dietary supplementation with LC-PUFA, is now warranted to investigate these possibilities.

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