Omega-3 supplements may help attention for kids with and without ADHD

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Image: © iStockPhoto / Stepan Popov
Image: © iStockPhoto / Stepan Popov

Related tags Omega-3 fatty acid Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder

A daily dose of the omega-3s DHA and EPA may improve attention in kids with and without attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), says a new study from Unilever.

Sixteen weeks of consuming 650 mg per day of EPA and DHA in the form of a margarine were associated with improvements in parent-rated attention, report researchers from the University Medical Center Utrecht (The Netherlands), Dr von Hauner Children's Hospital (Germany), and Unilever Research & Development.

On the other hand, no changes were observed for cognitive control or on fMRI measures of brain activity, they wrote in Neuropsychopharmacology​.

“We used a cognitive control task and found no changes in brain activity or task performance after supplementation,”​ they wrote. “Furthermore, dopamine turnover did not appear to be affected by the supplementation, as [homovanillic acid] HVA levels in urine were not affected. Therefore, it appears that the neural mechanism underlying improvements in attention did not involve dopaminergic cognitive control networks.”

A real opportunity

Commenting independently on the study Harry Rice, PhD, VP of regulatory & scientific affairs for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), told us: “As more and more children are diagnosed with AD/HD, it's no surprise that the number of prescriptions written for central nervous stimulants has increased.

“While these drugs are proven to be beneficial, they're not without side effects. If EPA/DHA can augment the benefit(s) of these drugs, then there's a real opportunity to decrease the dose of the drugs and thus side effects.” 

Study details

Omega-3 softgels © Kagenmi
Image © iStockPhoto / Kagenmi

The researchers, led by Dr Dienke Bos from University Medical Center Utrecht, recruited 77 boys aged between 8 and 14, half of whom had ADHD and the others did not. The boys were randomly assigned to consume 10 grams per day of margarine with or without 650 mg of EPA + DHA for 16 weeks.

Results of the double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial indicated that the omega-3 intervention was associated with improvements in the parent-rated Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) attention problems. As could be expected from the intervention, boys in the omega-3 margarine group had higher phospholipid DHA levels at the end of the study, compared with placebo.

The researchers also found no effects of the intervention on dopamine turnover (measured by HVA levels), nor were any effects on fMRI measures of brain activity observed, suggesting an alternate mechanism.

“At baseline, boys with ADHD had higher symptoms of inattention than typically developing boys,”​ they wrote. “Furthermore, there was an effect of treatment on parent-rated symptoms of ADHD, regardless of diagnosis. This effect was driven by the measures of inattention at follow-up: subjects who had received omega-3 PUFAs had lower scores on the CBCL attention problems subscale than subjects on placebo. This ties in with earlier studies that have suggested that omega-3 PUFA supplementation improves symptoms of inattention specifically, and not symptoms of ADHD more generally.

“Moreover, our results indicate that typically developing children also benefit, showing the importance of omega-3 PUFA intake during development in general.”

Volume 40, Number 10, Pages 2298-2306, doi:  10.1038/npp.2015.73
“Reduced Symptoms of Inattention after Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation in Boys with and without Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder”
Authors: D.J. Bos, B. Oranje, et al. 

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