The new study suggests taking a supplement with omega-3/6 could improve reading skills in schoolchildren.
The research was led by Mats Johnson, chief physician and researcher at the Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Centre at Sahlgrenska Academy at the university.
He and his colleagues note that previous research has suggested there are positive effects of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in children with inattention and reading difficulties. As such, the team wanted to see if the fatty acids would improve reading ability in mainstream schoolchildren.
Although the human body can make most of the fats it needs from other fats or raw materials, omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fats that the body must acquire from food.
Foods high in omega-3 include fish, vegetable oils, nuts, flax seeds, and leafy vegetables. Meanwhile, most omega-6 fatty acids in the diet are derived from vegetable oils.
Johnson and colleagues note that polyunsaturated fats - including omega-3 and omega-6 - and their effects on children's learning and behavior has been a growing area of research.
According to the team, our modern diet does not contain very much omega-3.
"The cell membranes in the brain are largely made up of polyunsaturated fats, and there are studies that indicate that fatty acids are important for signal transmission between nerve cells and the regulation of signaling systems in the brain," says Johnson.
Children with mild attention problems showed greater improvement
To conduct their study, the researchers included 154 schoolchildren from western Sweden who were in grade 3 (between 9 and 10 years of age).
The researchers then measured their reading skills using a computer-based test, called the Logos test. It measured reading speed, ability to read nonsense words, and vocabulary.
Next, the team randomly assigned the children to receive either capsules with both omega-3 and omega-6, or identical placebo capsules containing palm oil. The children took the capsules for 3 months, and they and their parents did not know whether they had received fatty acids or the placebo.
After 3 months, all of the children received the real omega-3/6 capsules for the remaining 3 months of the study.
"Even after 3 months, we could see that the children's reading skills improved with the addition of fatty acids, compared with those who received the placebo. This was particularly evident in the ability to read a nonsense word aloud and pronounce it correctly (phonologic decoding), and the ability to read a series of letters quickly (visual analysis time)."
While the study included some children who had mild attention problems, there were not any children in the study who were diagnosed with ADHD. However, the researchers note that the children with mild attention problems achieved greater improvements in certain tests after taking the fatty acid supplements, including faster reading.
Theirs is the first double-blind, placebo-controlled study to show that omega-3/6 improves reading in schoolchildren. While the study suggests children could benefit from fatty acid supplementation, Johnson says: "To be more certain about the results, they should also be replicated in other studies."