• Question: I read that fish oils are supposed to help with brain function. Please could you explain how this works?

    Asked by smarks1 to Anna, Catriona, Daniel, Katherine, Michael on 14 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Catriona Morrison

      Catriona Morrison answered on 14 Apr 2015:

      I’m not a physiologist so I can’t explain how it works, except to say that there is a good deal of evidence linking Omega 3s with mental functioning: they are linked with maternal diet; diet in children; and throughout the lifespan. As a parent, and given the evidence, I would be doing my best to make sure that kids get a decent dose of fish oils!

    • Photo: Michael Thomas

      Michael Thomas answered on 14 Apr 2015:

      The idea is that fish oils (specifically omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) are essential to human health but must be provided by diet. These fatty acids are important for brain development and function. It has been suggested that a relative lack of omega-3 may contribute to many psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This is less because we fully understand the mechanisms involved (ADHD is itself not fully understood), more because sometimes interventions with dietary supplements have claimed to produce positive outcomes with children. Proper studies are needed to evaluate these claims, and effects may only show up for individuals whose diets are particularly deprived of the relevant nutrients.

      Here’s Paul Howard-Jones’s take on this issue, from an article entitled ‘Neuroscience and Education: Issues and Opportunities’ published by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme’ in 2007 (http://www.tlrp.org/pub/documents/Neuroscience%20Commentary%20FINAL.pdf):

      “The existing research suggests that good regular dietary habits are probably the most important nutritional issue influencing educational performance and achievement (Bellisle, F., Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children, British Journal of Nutrition, 92: S227-S232 2004).

      By contrast with the proven importance of having breakfast, evidence for the effectiveness of food supplements such as Omega-3 (in fish oils) is more controversial. There have been several studies exploring the effects of fatty-acid supplements on children with ADHD, but findings here have been contradictory and no clear consensus has emerged (see http://www.fabresearch.org/uploads/itemUploads/8165/CIRP_A_158286.pdf)

      Further research may help explain why such supplements appear to work in some contexts for some individuals with ADHD and not in others. There has been a flourishing of products on supermarket shelves that provide supplementary Omega-3 despite the fact that, to date, there have been no published scientific studies that demonstrate Omega-3 supplements enhance school performance or cognitive ability amongst the general population of children.

      However, evidence for a link between ingesting Omega-3 and positive effects upon brain function does appear to be growing, with intake being correlated with reduced risks of dementia in later life and consumption
      of fish during pregnancy being correlated with infant IQ.”

    • Photo: Anna Simmonds

      Anna Simmonds answered on 15 Apr 2015:

      The human brain is nearly 60% fat. Essential fatty acids, particularly omega-3 are necessary for maintaining optimal health but as they cannot be produced by the body they must be obtained through dietary intake. Eating omega-3-rich foods or taking a supplement has neurophysiological effects for brain function, and there is evidence to suggest benefits of increased intake in people with certain neurodevelopmental or mood disorders, such as ADHD, schizophrenia and depression.

      However, there is little evidence to suggest that dietary supplementation in healthy, normally developing people will result in cognitive enhancement. A number of studies have directly tested this using double-blind, placebo-controlled trials but have found no effect of supplementation on cognitive performance (unfortunately not open access: Benton et al., 2013, British Journal of Nutrition; Jackson et al., 2012, British Journal of Nutrition; Karr et al., 2012, Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology; Kirby et al., 2010, Research in Developmental Disabilities).

      In the parent survey conducted as part of the Wellcome Trust’s Education and Neuroscience work, just under a third of parents (27%) had used vitamins or supplements to boost their child’s academic performance and 7% of these said they had improved performance. (http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/stellent/groups/corporatesite/@msh_peda/documents/web_document/WTP055240.pdf)