Research has revealed that if the brain doesn’t get enough of the right fatty acids, it will use replacement fatty acids which are not ideal and this can have a negative impact on the way the brain functions. Consequently, fatty acid deficiencies are a factor worthy of consideration with regard to learning difficulties and behaviour problems in children.
The Local Education Authority in Durham England were concerned at the increasing number of children who appeared to be underachieving because of an inability to concentrate and focus on a task for any length of time and sought to find out whether supplementing their diets with omega 3 fatty acids might make a difference.
Dozens of schools and hundreds of children have now taken part in several research trials involving fatty acid supplementation by way of fish oil. These trials, led by Dr. Madeleine Portwood, have now become known as the Durham trials and are receiving significant media attention both in the UK and abroad for the dramatic effects that fish oil appears to have on learning and behaviour in the classroom. So far, studies have been carried out on preschool, primary and secondary school children.
The Oxford Durham Study
The largest of these trials was carried out in 2002 and involved more than 100 primary school children from 12 different schools in the Durham area, all of who had developmental coordination disorder, and some with additional problems related to concentration and learning. This trial, known as the Oxford-Durham Trial, was run in collaboration with the Dyslexia Research trust based in Oxford, and Dr Alex Richardson from Oxford University, who is an expert on fatty acids and the brain.
The children in the trial were given a daily capsule of either fish oil or a placebo and as the trial was double blind, no one knew which child was given what. During the week, the children were administered the supplement by school staff. Each child was given six 500mg capsules a day from Monday to Friday, each capsule containing either fish oil or a placebo. The parents gave the children the capsules at the weekends and assessments were made regularly throughout the trial.
It can take weeks for the effect of fatty acid supplementation to show so the trial was conducted over a six month period with half of the children taking fish oil for the entire 6 months and the other half taking a placebo for the first 3 months and fish oil for the second 3 months.
In the first 3 months, those on the fish oil from the start showed dramatic improvements in reading, spelling and behaviour with the placebo group showing similar improvements when they too started taking the fish oil. In the original fish oil group, in the first 3 months, the average gain for reading was over 9 months and just over 6 months for spelling and they continued to show an improvement beyond the first 3 months. When the placebo group switched to fish oil, they showed a reading gain of over 12 months and over 6 months for spelling after just 3 months on fish oil.
The results of this trial haven’t yet been fully analysed but the early indications are “encouraging” and according to Dr Madeleine Portwood, up to 40% of the children have shown significant improvements.
Another Durham trial involved nursery school children between the ages of 18 months and two and half years old, 47 of which completed the trial. After 5 months 91% of those who were rated as having very poor behaviour at the start of the trial had improved, with only 4% rated as still having poor or very poor behaviour.
Similar improvements were seen for concentration levels with 79% rated as having good or very good levels of concentration after 5 months supplementation. Language skills also improved significantly compared to the control groups.
Secondary school study
This study was conducted in 2004 and concentrated on how fatty acids could help secondary school children with symptoms of ADHD; the results were released in March, 2006.
At the beginning of the trial, 94% were rated as having moderate to severe ADHD and the same score for inattention, and 89% as having additional problems with impulsivity. After 3 months, the ratings for ADHD and impulsivity were reduced to 28% with inattention dropping to just 17%.
The results of the Durham Trials appear to validate claims that the brain needs the right kind of fatty acids to develop and function normally. The fish oil used in these trials were high in the Omega 3 fatty acid EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), which is thought to be the fatty acid mostly responsible for efficient functioning of the brain itself.
Fish oil is rapidly gaining recognition for being an effective way of improving not only brain function, but lowering the risk of developing other health problems too, so much so that the UK government is considering the option of giving fish oil to all school children in order to improve nutrition in general.