Fish Oil and Children, Adolescents' Health

Is There an Association between Autism and a DHA Deficiency?

TOURS, FRANCE. Autism is a developmental disorder primarily affecting communication ability and social, cognitive, and imaginative development. Brain development is intimately linked to the structure of neuronal cell membranes and this structure again is dependent on the fatty acid composition making up the phospholipids forming the membrane. It is therefore of interest to investigate possible associations between psychiatric disorders and neuronal membrane phospholipid fatty acid composition. There is already evidence that quite strong associations may exist with regard to schizophrenia, attention-deficient hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder. Now French researchers report that a low level of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is characteristic for blood plasma drawn from autistic children.

Their study involved a group of 15 autistic children (4 girls and 11 boys) whose blood plasma levels of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty (PUFA) levels were compared to those of a group of 18 mentally retarded children (who generally have low PUFA levels). The researchers found that autistic children had a 23% lower level of DHA than did mentally retarded children. Autistic children also had a significantly higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than did mentally retarded children (18.6 vs 11.0 respectively).

Autistic Children Displayed DHA Deficiency

The French researchers speculate that the DHA deficiency observed in the autistic children may be due to one or more of the following:

  • Poorer ability to convert 18-carbon fatty acids to 22-carbon fatty acid (DHA);
  • Enhanced breakdown of PUFAs in the phospholipid membrane;
  • Abnormality in the mechanism by which PUFAs are incorporated into phospholipids.

The researchers conclude that supplementation with DHA could represent an additional approach to the treatment of autism. Fish oil is rich in both DHA and EPA; therefore, consumption of fish oil may benefit autistic children.
Vancassel, S, et al. Plasma fatty acid levels in autistic children. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, Vol. 65, 2001, pp.1-7

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