In a new study, scientists found no evidence that fish oil supplements improve children’s memory, behaviour or reading abilities. The results contradict previous findings and suggest Omega-3 supplements may not be as beneficial as researchers thought.
Published recently in the journal PLOS ONE, the study was carried out by researchers at the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford in the UK and was the second randomised, controlled trial of its kind.
In 2012, the same team conducted a study using the same Omega-3 supplements. They found that the supplements improved working memory, reading ability and behaviour among children with learning needs, including ADHD.
Researchers hoped the new study would confirm their previous results. They said the implications of a study with similar findings “would be profound, since there is an urgent need for safe, effective interventions for child learning and behavioural problems.”
Dr Thees Spreckelsen, study co-author and University of Oxford postdoctoral research fellow, said that Omega-3 fatty acids, often taken in the form of fish oil supplements, “are widely regarded as beneficial.”
Omega-3 fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are necessary for human health. Since the human body cannot make them, fatty acids must come from food, such as fish and nuts, and may be lacking in some people’s diets. The substance supports the growth of neurons, and therefore plays a crucial role in brain function.
Although the initial study drew some criticism, other scientists said the results warranted additional research.
For the second study, researchers tested nearly 400 children aged seven to nine years old from 84 primary schools and academies in the UK. They focused on under-performing children whose reading ability was lower than three quarters of their peers. Children whose first language was not English, as well as those with medical disorders, such as a visual or hearing impairment, were excluded from the study.
Their report says the team “made every attempt to rigorously replicate” the results of their 2012 study. For 16 weeks, half of the children were given a 600mg Omega-3 fish oil supplement each day, while the others were given a placebo.
Parents and teachers tested the children’s working memories and reading abilities at home and at school before and after the 16-week period in which they received either the supplement or a placebo. Parents and teachers also rated the children’s behaviour before and after the study.
Contrary to the previous trial, the team’s new research yielded no significant difference in the outcomes before and after the supplements. According to the latest study, the findings do “not provide supporting evidence for the benefits of this safe nutritional intervention.”
“The evidence on benefits for children’s learning and behaviour is clearly not as strong as previously thought,” said Dr Spreckelsen.
The researchers speculated that the different results could be due to a variety of reasons, including recruitment issues as well as measurement and uptake differences.
“We are all keen to help kids who are struggling at school,” said University of Birmingham Professor Paul Montgomery, who led the research. “In these times of limited resources, my view is that funds should be spent on more promising interventions. The effects here, while good for a few kids, were not substantial for the many.”