Omega-3s Affect Behavior

By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Health Gauge.

What if there is a magical compound existing in nature–a nutrient capable of altering the ways in which children can interact with one another? What if that change could battle depression, alienation, and aggression? What if the fish swimming through our rivers and oceans could help prevent future crime?

It may sound ridiculous, but nature’s remedies often arise from the least likely of places. A new study has demonstrated that when children boost omega-3 intake by 1000 mg daily, the results are undeniable: decreases in negative behaviors occur across the board.

BTR tunes in with lead researcher Professor Adrian Raine of the Richard Perry University in Philadelphia to hear some of his personal insights into this remarkable study.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): What first inspired this study? How did you get involved?

Adrian Raine (AR): Back in 1972 my PhD supervisor Peter [Venables] set up this longitudinal study with children in Mauritius, which is a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. I took over the directorship of that in 1987 when Peter retired, and so I’ve been going out there ever since. I started studying the children that Peter had been studying since ’72. In our prior work, we had shown that kids with poor nutrition at age three are much more aggressive and anti-social at ages eight, 11, and 17. So following them over time, we observed these kids develop behavior problems throughout childhood and on into adolescence.

In addition, what we did in Mauritius was set up an environmental enrichment study. This is where we provided one group of three-year-olds better nutrition, more physical exercise, and cognitive stimulation. We found that by the time these individuals reached age 11 they had better brain function compared to the kids that didn’t have that early environmental enrichment. More than that–at age 23 there was a 34 percent reduction in criminal offending within the enrichment program group.

BTR: Did the omega-3s play a role in this enrichment program?

AR: So we’d already done work in Mauritius showing how poor nutrition was a potential risk factor for anti-social behavior. Secondly, we’d also done a broad-scale study showing that if we can boost the environment, including giving better nutrition, then we can reduce crime twenty years down the road. So we began to look in our enrichment program. “Hey,” we asked ourselves, “what exactly did we do with the nutrition?” One thing that came up is that the kids in this group had two portions of fish extra every week. So that gave us the clue that maybe the omega-3 found in fish should be an element to study further. That’s what got us inspired to start the randomized control trial concerning the effects of omega-3s.

BTR: How were these external behavior problems monitored and recorded for each child?

AR: These were assessed by the parents of the children. One hundred of the children were randomized into the omega-3 group, and the other hundred were randomized into the placebo group. They each received a fruit drink every day, but the omega-3 group had one gram of omega-3 added to their drink. The parents then began assessing their children’s behavior on a “child-behavior” checklist. It was a list consisting of behavior problems that kids have–problems with attention, anxiety, depression, but also aggression and rule-breaking behavior. The parents did the reports at time zero, which is when the kids started the omega-3, or just before they started. They also rated their children once again six months later, which was at the end of the treatment. And thirdly they rated their children’s behavior six months after the end of the study; 12 months after the study first began.

BTR: Do you think there’s potential for omega-3 to be used in treating childhood depression?

AR: Yes, because while the focus on our study was on anti-social and aggressive behavior, our checklist showed that there were reductions in both anxiety and depression in the children, too. We call these problems internalizing behaviors, because anxiety and depression are internal to the child. We found a 68 percent reduction in these problems in the children.

There was also a significant reduction in what we call externalizing problems–aggression and rule-breaking and delinquency. And that reduction was significant too: it was 42 percent! So in addition to showing that we can reduce aggression and antisocial behavior, we found we can also reduce other problems that children have, including anxiety and depression, attention problems, and social problems.

BTR: You also found that reductions in parental psychopathy accounted for 61 percent of the improvements in child anti-social behavior. What do you think are some of the implications of this particular finding?

AR: It is interesting, and we hadn’t entirely anticipated it because we never gave the parents omega-3 drinks. What it shows to me is that the child can affect the parents’ behavior and the parent can affect the child’s behavior in a reciprocal way. The parents’ behavior improved–that was surprising to us. Why did that happen? Well, it might be because their children’s behavior is improving. It could be that if your child is easier to manage and life is a lot less stressful as a parent and so you chill out a bit more. Thus your behavior will inevitably improve, too. That could be one reason why.

Another reason could be that the omega-3 parent group might steal their children’s drink and it’s really the omega-3 that is directly improving their behavior. We can’t tell which of these two hypotheses is correct. They might both be true.

BTR: Do you foresee the growth of a larger market for omega-3 products after what you’ve discovered?

AR: I think, first of all, findings like this need to be replicated. The literature is full of wonderful studies that get effects, but can they replicate it? Can they find it in other countries, for example? Because Mauritius is not the same as the United States. So we definitely need replication and extension. But assuming that these findings replicate–certainly. If I was a parent with a troubling child, then before I took him to the doctor’s or the psychologist I might turn to something much simpler like omega-3 and omega-3 drinks.

BTR: What do you envision that extension and future research in the field might look like?

AR: My number one goal right now is to extend these findings to Philadelphia, along with other countries. We’re actually starting to do some great work in Singapore at the moment. So that’s the first step. Can we generalize the findings to other populations?

I think the next step after that is not just giving the kids the omega-3 drinks, but also giving the parents the drinks too. And suppose we give both the parent and the child the extra omega-3? Could there be exponential improvement in child behavior? Because I think the child’s behavior is in part a function of the parent’s behavior, and also think the parent’s behavior is a function of the child’s behavior.