GLASGOW, SCOTLAND. The prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome (ASP) has increased dramatically over the past 10 years and may now affect as many as 6 out of every 1000 children under the age of 5 years. There is some evidence that ASD may involve a fatty acid imbalance in the neuronal membranes. A group of Scottish researchers has found that a deficiency in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the main components of fish oil, is clearly linked to ASD.
Autistic Children More Often Reported Symptoms of Fatty Acid Deficiency
As a first step in their study the parents of 104 children with ASD (94 with autism and 10 with ASP) were asked to fill out a questionnaire, which included a checklist of symptoms of impaired fatty acid metabolism (excessive thirst and urination, dry skin and hair, dandruff, and soft and brittle nails). A score greater than 3 on the checklist was deemed to be indicative of an essential fatty acid deficiency (FAD). The FAD score for a group of 71 healthy controls averaged 1.78 as compared to 6.34 in the autism group and 7.64 in the ASP group.
EPA and DHA in Fish Oil Benefits Autistic Children
Analyses of blood samples from the study participants showed that children with regressive autism (autism not present at birth, but developing 18-36 months after birth) and ASP had significantly higher levels of tetracosanoic acid (24:0), n-6 docosapentaenoic acid (22:5), and tetracosenoic acid (24:1) in their red blood cell membranes than did the controls. In contrast, levels of n-3 docosapentaenoic acid (22:5) and total n-3 fatty acids were significantly lower in children with ASD. The ratio between arachidonic acid and EPA was also significantly higher in children with ASP and regressive autism. This ratio was reduced by a factor of 5 after 6 months of supplementation with 2-4 grams/day of EPA + DHA. Supplementation with EPA-rich fish oil has been reported to result in improvements in general health, sleep patterns, concentration, and sociability and reductions in irritability, aggression, and hyperactivity among autistic children.
Bell, JG, et al. Essential fatty acids and phospholipase A2 in autistic spectrum disorders. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, Vol. 71, 2004, pp. 201-04