By Krista Forand, M.Ed.
Many parents want to know how to help their child who has ADHD. Whether you choose to use medication or instead look to alternative therapies, it is important to know what the research says about all available treatments, whether medication or alternatives, before making the decision to use one with your child. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (say that three times fast!) are widely advertised by producers and retailers as an effective way to enhance brain functioning or improve cognitive deficits in individuals with disorders such as ADHD. But what does the recent research say about Omega 3s and their effect on cognitive functioning?
A recent meta-analysis (Cooper et al., 2015) looked at several studies that measured Omega 3s on different cognitive outcomes (e.g., attention, memory). A meta-analysis is a study of studies. It’s the putting together of a whole bunch of studies’ results and determining if overall, based on all of those studies, there was something significant or effective about a particular treatment. The studies that these researchers put together included people from the general population (i.e., people who didn’t have ADHD), people who had ADHD or a lot of ADHD symptoms and people who had ADHD and a reading problem. After searching through the research and using strict criteria for which studies would be included and which studies would not, the researchers ended up including 24 studies in their analysis. These studies were randomized, double blind, placebo control trials. What are those you ask? Well, randomized means that the participants in the study were randomly placed in either the treatment group (i.e., they took Omega 3s) or the control group (i.e., they took a sugar pill, or in this case, an “oil” pill that wasn’t supposed to do anything). Randomizing ensures that both groups weren’t significantly different in any way to start with, making it easier to detect an effect by the Omega 3s, if there was one to detect. Double blind means that the researchers who were collecting data didn’t know who was in the treatment group or the control group and the participants didn’t know whether they were receiving the treatment or not. This is important because research on placebos has taught us that placebos have positive effects on people and researchers have unknowingly or unintentionally affected results by knowing who was taking the treatment and who wasn’t taking it. So enough explanations and onto the results!
This meta-analysis found that Omega 3 supplementation had no significant effect on cognitive abilities in all of the samples (general population vs. ADHD vs. ADHD and a reading problem). They did however, find a small improvement in short-term memory in studies who supplemented the general population and ADHD and reading problem groups, but the effect was only significant for those participants who had pre-existing deficiencies in Omega 3s. Based on these findings, the claims that are being made by retailers are inconsistent with current research findings. Parents are encouraged to make informed decisions about treatment choices for their child with ADHD. At this point, it appears that Omega 3s do not significantly improve cognitive functioning. More research is needed, particularly related to those individuals who have an Omega-3 deficiency.
Krista has worked in various roles with the CanLearn Society (formerly Calgary Learning Centre) since 2009. She is currently working with the clinical team as a registered psychologist, providing assessments and group interventions for individuals with learning and attention difficulties. In 2014, Krista obtained her graduate degree from the University of Calgary where she cultivated her interest in learning disabilities and attention disorders. She believes in the therapeutic effect of psychoeducational assessment and how this process can empower individuals and families to take control of their lives, by understanding their unique way of being in the world.
Cooper, R.E., Tye, C., Kuntsi, J. Vassos, E., & Asherson, P. (2015). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation and cognition: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 29(7), 753-763. doi: 10.1177/0269881115587958