The most critical period for DHA’s impact on brain development occurs before birth, when the fetus gets this brainy omega-3 via the umbilical cord.
But a series of clinical studies from Britain’s University of Oxford suggest that young children continue to gain brain benefits from dietary DHA … whether from fish or supplements.
Now, another study from Oxford adds weight to the idea that omega-3s keep helping kids’ brains, well into childhood.
The new study focused on schoolchildren with below-average reading ability, and compared their omega-3 blood levels to standard measures of cognition (reading ability and memory), behavior, and emotional health.
Separate study links omega-3 lack to callousness in kids
Adding weight to the CEBI group’s findings, a recent study from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London linked low omega-3 levels to increased risk for “callous-unemotional” (CU) traits in kids with ADHD (Gow RV et al. 2013).
As the King’s College team wrote, “The findings unveil for the first time that CU [callous-unemotional] and anti-social traits in ADHD are associated with lower omega-3 levels.” (Gow RV et al. 2013)
The study was co-authored by renowned brain researcher Michael Crawford, Ph.D., who, in 1972, reported the first evidence that the human brain requires DHA for its growth, structure and function.
And the UK team’s results affirm prior indications that omega-3 DHA blood levels can affect cognition and behavior in schoolchildren.
Many of the best studies came from Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention (CEBI), and most of those were led by Alex Richardson, Ph.D. ... with psychiatrist Joseph Hibbeln, M.D. of the U.S. NIH playing a key role.
Three years ago, we covered the outcomes of an earlier study conducted by scientists from Oxford’s CEBI.
For more on that study see “Slow-Reading Kids Aided by Omega-3s”, which provides links to our reports on prior CEBI studies …including the landmark 2007 study summarized in “Findings Verify Safety and Value of Higher Maternal Fish Intake”.
UK study affirms the value of omega-3s to young schoolchildren
The CEBI researchers examined blood from 493 children aged seven to nine years, all of whom had below average reading performance (Montgomery P et al. 2013).
They tested the kids’ blood to determine its proportions of the two key omega-3s, DHA and EPA. (Of the two, DHA is much more important to brain function, while EPA appears to contribute to healthy behavior control.)
The current medical consensus holds that a minimum percent of the fatty acids in human red blood cells should be omega-3s, in order to enable and promote optimal cardiovascular and heart health.
This measure is called the “omega-3 index”, and physicians increasingly view eight percent as the minimum proportion of omega-3s needed in red blood cells to enable optimal heart, brain, and overall health, with 12 percent being optimal.
Reading ability, “working” memory capacity, behavior control (ADHD-type symptoms), and emotional stability were also assessed in the 493 participating children, using standard tests.
The test results were adjusted to account for the impacts of factors known to affect learning and behavior, such as household income, gender, consumption of fish and omega-3s, and use of medications for ADHD or other conditions.
The tests also looked for two kinds of abnormal behavior:
- Oppositional behavior ... an ongoing pattern of anger-driven disobedience, hostility, and defiant behavior toward authority figures that exceeds the bounds of normal childhood behavior
- Emotional lability – also known as emotional incontinence – is characterized by abnormal emotional displays such as involuntary crying and uncontrollable crying and/or laughing.
- Lower DHA levels were linked to poorer reading ability and working memory performance.
- Lower DHA levels were linked to higher levels of oppositional behavior and emotional lability.
- Omega-3 DHA and EPA levels were only 1.9 percent and 0.55 percent of total blood fatty acids, respectively, with DHA showing more individual variation.
As the authors wrote, “In these healthy UK children with below average reading ability, concentrations of DHA and other Omega-3s were low … and directly related to measures of cognition and behavior. These … suggest that the benefits from dietary supplementation with omega-3s [previously] found for ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and related conditions might extend to the general school population.” (Montgomery P et al. 2013)
They also expressed concern about adverse cardiovascular effects of the kids’ very low omega-3 levels: “Concentrations below 4% EPA+DHA in red cell membranes (i.e. the omega-3 index) are considered to signify high cardiovascular risk, and 8-12% [is considered] the optimal range. The longer term implications of the very low values found in these UK schoolchildren obviously cannot be known, but give cause for concern.” (Montgomery P et al. 2013)
While they noted the need for controlled clinical trials to confirm the connection, they've already conducted one such study (“Slow-Reading Kids Aided by Omega-3s”), and they urged parents to ensure that kids get enough omega-3s: “… meanwhile, the low blood omega-3 status found across this sample would indicate that an increased dietary intake might be beneficial on general health grounds.” (Montgomery P et al. 2013)
The very low omega-3 levels found in the new CEBI study was disturbingly low, given that DHA is critical for normal brain and nervous system development.
In fact, it seems sadly unsurprising that children so sorely lacking in omega-3s would under-perform in school and suffer behavioral and emotional problems.
You’ll find reports on related research in the Omega-3s & Child Development and Omega-3s & Brain Health sections of our news archive.
- Gow RV, Vallee-Tourangeau F, Crawford MA, Taylor E, Ghebremeskel K, Bueno AA, Hibbeln JR, Sumich A, Rubia K. Omega-3 fatty acids are inversely related to callous and unemotional traits in adolescent boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2013 Jun;88(6):411-8. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2013.03.009. Epub 2013 May 7.
- Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Richardson AJ. Low Blood Long Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids in UK Children Are Associated with Poor Cognitive Performance and Behavior: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from the DOLAB Study. PLoS One. 2013 Jun 24;8(6):e66697. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066697. Accessed at http://www.plosone.org/article/ info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0066697