Brain function depends on having all its systems working well together. Damage to the brain from injury or disease, impaired production of transmitter molecules or insufficient amounts of substances needed for brain responses are some ways brain function can go awry. DHA, a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid is important for the structure of brain cells and for brain function. When it is not available in sufficient amounts in early life, brain development and learning may be slowed or harmed. There is evidence of this in suboptimal visual function, childhood learning and development, behavioral problems and in learning or cognition in later life.
There is growing evidence that some children with developmental disorders, attention or behavior difficulties or learning disabilities may be affected by having too little long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Moreover, the high levels of omega-6 fatty acids in most Western diets may aggravate the problem. Several studies where children have been given long-chain omega-3s have reported modest improvements in learning, behavior and memory, but not all studies agree. We do not know whether all long-chain omega-3s are involved, but providing additional DHA has been linked to higher performance scores and visual function in children. There are wide-ranging implications if children’s school and behavioral performance could be improved through the increased availability of long-chain omega-3s.
To further explore whether long-chain omega-3s might benefit under-performing school children, researchers in the U.K. provided omega-3 supplements to 7- to 9-year-old children who were in the bottom third of scores on a standardized reading test. Reading at this level is about 18 months behind the level expected for this age. The study used an adult dose of DHA, 600 mg/day, for 16 weeks and compared test results before and after supplementation. Although the investigators focused mainly on reading scores, they also evaluated the children’s working memory and behavior as rated by parents and teachers.
After 16 weeks of treatment, the reading scores in the DHA group did not differ from the placebo control group. However, when the investigators compared the scores for children who originally scored in the bottom 20 percent or the lowest 10 percent, consumption of DHA was associated with significantly higher scores for both groups, with the most dramatic increases observed in the bottom 10 percent. The researchers determined that the improvement in the lowest 20 percent group would be the equivalent of a 20 percent gain in reading age. For the lowest 10 percent group, the change was even more dramatic, a gain of about 50 percent.
The evaluations of working memory did not change significantly with the consumption of DHA. When the parents rated their child’s behavior, they noted significant improvements in 6 of the 7 measures, such as ADHD index, restlessness and emotional liability. Teachers’ scores did not suggest behavior changes.
This study is provocative and encouraging if others can confirm its findings. Other investigators have reported improved reading scores with fatty acid supplementation, but some have failed to detect improvements. This study suggests that for a modest investment in nutrition and time, children with the greatest reading difficulties might be able to boost their reading ability substantially. Such an achievement would also improve the child’s self-esteem and school performance. These findings also reinforce the importance of DHA in childhood learning.