Daily omega-3 DHA pills boosted the reading and behavior of underperforming second and third graders
By Craig Weatherby
Can omega-3 supplements help young kids who fall behind in reading skill?
The answer may be “yes”, judging by the outcomes of a controlled clinical trial from Britain’s University of Oxford … the oldest in the English-speaking world.
Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention has produced several major clinical studies exploring the effects of fish and omega-3s on young children.
Most have been led by Alex Richardson, Ph.D., founder/director of Food and Behaviour Research – a British charity dedicated to research into the links between nutrition and behavior.
For example, see “Fish Oil and ADHD: The New York Times Runs a Balanced Report” and “UK Study Finds Fish Oil Benefits Kids with Cognitive Deficits”.
(One of the most significant studies was co-authored by renowned omega-3 expert and NIH-based psychiatrist Joseph Hibbeln, M.D. … see “Findings Verify Safety and Value of Higher Maternal Fish Intake”.)
Now, a new randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial from Oxford indicates that daily supplements of DHA – one of the two omega-3s in fish fat – can improve the reading and behavior of healthy but underperforming children.
The trial – called the DHA Oxford Learning and Behaviour (DOLAB) study – compared the effects of daily supplements of omega-3 DHA to those of placebo pills.
As Dr. Richardson said, “Our results showed that taking daily supplements of omega-3 DHA improved reading performance for the poorest readers (those in the lowest one-fifth of the normal range) and helped these children to catch up with their peer group.” (OU 2012)
Her co-author, Professor Paul Montgomery, Ph.D., noted the study’s unprecedented nature: “Previous studies have shown benefits from … omega-3 in children with conditions such as ADHD … but this is the first study to show such positive results in children from the general school population.” (OU 2012)
Study finds DHA’s effects vary by behavior and reading performance
The researchers recruited 362 healthy children from mainstream state schools, aged between seven and nine, whose scores on a standardized reading test fell in the bottom one-third.
The group included a subgroup of 224 children whose reading scores fell in the bottom one-fifth, and a subgroup of 105 children whose reading scores fell in the bottom one-tenth.
For four months, the children in each sub-group received either omega-3 or placebo capsules:
Half were given capsules of algae oil providing 600 mg of omega-3 DHA.
Half were given taste/color-matched placebo capsules containing corn and soybean oil, which consisted primarily of omega-6 fats.
Over a four-month period, average reading skills among children would normally increase by well-established, age-related amounts.
The omega-3 DHA capsules had no significant effect on reading advancement in the overall study group of 362 children.
However, the kids in the omega-3 DHA group with the worst initial reading scores showed very significant gains above normally expected advancements:
The children in the bottom one-fifth gained an additional 0.8 months in “reading age” … a 20 percent improvement.
The children in the bottom one-tenth gained an additional 1.9 months of “reading age” … a 50 percent improvement.
Kids given DHA also showed behavior improvements
The study authors also gave the children tests typically used to screen for Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Average scores for these children were within the normal range before treatment.
However, significant benefits were reported for the children taking omega-3 DHA on eight of 14 scales assessing a wide range of ADHD-type symptoms.
For example, in the children who received the DHA supplement, parents reported significantly less hyperactivity and defiant behavior than parents of children in the control group.
A follow-up study is currently underway at the University of Oxford to explore the effects of DHA supplementation in a larger sample of underperforming children.
The DOLAB trial is an independent study conducted at the University of Oxford, and was conducted in collaboration with the Oxfordshire County Council Education Department.
It was funded by a grant from DSM Nutritional Products, who also provided the active and placebo supplements.
Richardson AJ, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Montgomery P (2012) Docosahexaenoic Acid for Reading, Cognition and Behavior in Children Aged 7–9 Years: A Randomized, Controlled Trial (The DOLAB Study). PLoS ONE 7(9): e43909. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043909. Accessed at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0043909
University of Oxford (UO). Increased intake of Omega-3 fatty acids improves children’s reading and behavior. September 7, 2012. Accessed at http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_releases_for_journalists/120907.html