New research from the UK suggests that taking a daily supplement of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, could be a simple and effective way to improve reading and behaviour in healthy but underperforming children.

Alex Richardson, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention at Oxford University, and colleagues, report the results of the DHA Oxford Learning and Behaviour (DOLAB) study in a paper that was published online in the open access journal PLoS ONE on 6 September.

DHA stands for Docosahexaenoic acid, an important omega-3 fatty acid that is found in fish, seafood and algae (seaweed). The type Richardson and colleagues used in the DOLAB study comes from algae, making it suitable for vegetarians.

People living in modern developed countries do not generally get enough essential omega-3 fatty acids, a lack of which is thought to contribute to a wide range of health problems, both physical and mental.

Some previous clinical trials have suggested omega-3 supplements could improve child behaviour and learning, but most of these have involved children with neurodevelopmental disorders, for example ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and DCD (developmental coordination disorder).

Richardson and colleagues set out to investigate whether such benefits might extend to children in the general population.

To do this they designed a parallel group, fixed-dose, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial that lasted for four months.

With help from the County Council’s Education Department, they identified 362 healthy 7 to 9 year-olds attending mainstream Oxfordshire primary schools and who had underperformed in standardized reading tests. The researchers compared the effect of taking daily supplements of omega-3 DHA with placebo.

The treatment dose was 600mg per day of omega-3 DHA from algal oil, or a taste and colour-matched vegetable oil placebo, which the children took for 16 weeks. During school days, school staff administered the capsules, and on non-school days the parents gave them to the children.

Richardson told the press:

“Our results showed that taking daily supplements of omega-3 DHA improved reading performance for the poorest readers (those in the lowest fifth of the normal range) and helped these children to catch up with their peer group.”

The overall study sample comprised children whose initial reading ability was in the lowest third of the general population range. The study results showed that the treatment had no effect on this overall group.

But, there was a significant improvement in reading ability in the children whose initial reading ability was in the lowest fifth of the general population range and who took DHA.

Children’s reading age would normally increase by about 4 months over a 16 week period. The children whose initial reading ability was in the lowest fifth gained an extra 0.8 months if they took DHA rather than placebo. For those whose initial reading ability was in the lowest tenth, the improvement was an extra 1.9 months with DHA.

Parents of children whose initial reading perfomance was lowest and who showed improvements also said they saw an overall improvement in their children’s behavior.

Funds for the study came from DSM Nutritional Products, who also provided the active and placebo supplements.

The University of Oxford is now doing a similar DHA supplementation study with a larger group of underperforming children.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD