OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM. Neurodevelopmental disorders are becoming increasingly common among school-age children. It is estimated that about 5% of British school children suffer from developmental coordination disorder (DCD), while 1-2% suffer from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder syndrome (ADHD). In the United States the prevalence of ADHD is estimated at 4%. DCD is characterized by problems with motor function (manual dexterity, ball skills and balance) and difficulties in learning, behavioural problems, and lack of social skills. The main ADHD symptoms are cognitive problems (problems with thinking, learning and remembering), hyperactivity, anxiousness, shyness, perfectionism, opposition, social problems, excessive talkativeness, restlessness and noisiness.
It is well established that the main components of fish oil, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), together with the omega-6 fatty acids, arachidonic acid (AA) and dihomogamma linolenic acid (DGLA), play a major role in the structure of neuronal membranes. There is also substantial evidence that children with ADHD tend to be deficient in EPA and DHA.
Considering this evidence, researchers at Oxford University decided to investigate whether supplementation with fish oils would help children with DCD and ADHD. Their clinical trial involved 100 children between the ages of 5 and 12 years who had been diagnosed with DCD and showed ADHD symptoms as well. The children were randomized to receive 6 placebo (olive oil) capsules a day or 6 capsules a day of an essential fatty acid (EFA) mixture providing a total of 558 mg of EPA, 174 mg of DHA, 60 mg of gamma-linolenic acid plus 10 mg of natural alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). Half the children received the EFA mixture for 6 months, while the other half received the placebo for 3 months and then the EFA mixture for the remaining 3 months of the trial.
The improvements in the EFA groups were substantial. While no improvement was noted in motor skills, both reading and spelling skills improved significantly. The mean increase in reading age for the first 3 months was 9.5 months in the EFA group versus 3.3 months in the placebo group. Similarly, the increase in spelling age during the first 3 months of the trial was 6.6 months in the EFA group versus 1.2 months in the placebo group. Improvements in ADHD symptoms were also substantial, particularly in regard to hyperactivity, cognitive problems, anxiousness and shyness. The rate of improvements noted for the first 3 months continued for the subsequent 3 months of the trial. The researchers conclude that the EFA supplement may be a safe, tolerable and effective treatment for improving academic progress and behaviour among children with DCD. EFAs can be found in fish oil and ADHD patients may consider taking a fish oil supplement in addition to vitamin E.
Richardson, A.J. and Montgomery, P. The Oxford-Durham study: a randomized, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics, Vol. 115, May 2005, pp. 1360-66