Rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have been steadily climbing for at least two decades. Today, roughly 11 percent of children in America are diagnosed with the psychiatric condition. Pharmacological treatments work for the majority of children, but some feel the drugs may be over-prescribed. Lots of parents (especially in the United States) object to giving their children stimulant medications. For many years “there has been some interest in functional food, so to say, or whether dietary intake could improve symptoms of psychiatric disorders,” says Dienke Bos, a graduate student at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands.
As far as dietary supplements go, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids—found in fish—are an appealing alternative to standard ADHD medications. Previous research has shown that children with ADHD are often deficient in omega-3s, which have already been linked to numerous health benefits (the potential side effects—fishy burps and loose stools—are closer to unpleasant than dangerous).
The researchers found no differences in the function of cognitive control circuits between children with ADHD and those without.
In a new study, Bos and her colleagues recruited 79 boys from the Utrect area, aged eight to 14, and gave the subjects a daily dose of 1,300 milligrams of the fatty acids in the form of either omega-3 fortified margarine or regular old margarine for about four months. Half the group had been diagnosed with ADHD, while the other half showed more typical development. “All the children in the study were already used to eating margarine on bread, so it [did] not change anything in their daily routine,” Bos says. “We figured that this would be the least intrusive way to change their diet, and have them complete a 16-week intervention—which is a quite long period, especially for young children.” In the end, compliance rates were remarkably high: 76 of the original subjects completed the study.
The omega-3 supplementation did improve some symptoms of ADHD, the team reports today in Neuropsychopharmacology. Boys that consumed omega-3 fortified margarine—even those who did not have ADHD—had fewer attention problems, as reported by their parents using the Child Behavior Checklist, a widely used tool to measure the severity of ADHD symptoms. It’s still not clear, however, exactly how omega-3s influence attention, and the supplements had no effect on other symptoms of ADHD, such as cognitive control. The team used functional MRI scanners to measure the subjects' brain activity as they watched images of Pokémon appear on a screen. The participants had to quickly push a button in response to some Pokémon, but not others—their accuracy an indicator of cognitive control. The researchers found no differences in the function of cognitive control circuits between children with ADHD and those without.
The clinical effects of omega-3 supplementation on attention, while encouraging, are small, Bos cautions; in the future, omega-3 supplementation is more likely to complement standard treatments, rather than replace them. “There are a lot of parents who want to hear that there’s something else available than [pharmacological] treatments,” she says, “but it’s definitely not the same.”
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