No evidence Omega-3 fish oil supplements improve reading ability or memory

It’s something that sometimes pop up for a possible item in one of our Urban Myths books: the link between food and learning. Well, this study could than come in handy if we ever would include it… But even better: this study is an example of a very honest team of researchers: New research has found no evidence Omega-3 fish oil supplements help aid or improve the reading ability or memory function of underperforming schoolchildren. These findings are in contradiction to an earlier study run by the same team using the same supplement.

I really appreciate this kind of replication with preregistration even if it’s on your own earlier research. Respect!

From the press release:

In the second high-quality trial of its kind, published in PLOS ONE, the researchers found an entirely different result to an earlier study carried out in 2012, where omega-3 supplements were found to have a beneficial effect on the reading ability and working memory of school children with learning needs such as ADHD.

In this second study, the researchers tested children who were in the bottom quarter of ability in reading, and found that fish oil supplements did not have any or very little effect on the children’s reading ability or working memory and behaviours.

The team from the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford tested 376 children aged 7-9 years old, learning to read, but in the bottom quarter in terms of their ability.

Half of the children took a daily Omega-3 fish oil supplement and the remaining children took a placebo for 16 weeks.

Their reading and working memories were tested before and after by their parents at home and teachers in school — with no real differences found in the outcomes.

Professor Paul Montgomery, University of Birmingham, who led the research said: “We are all keen to help kids who are struggling at school and in these times of limited resources, my view is that funds should be spent on more promising interventions. The effects here, while good for a few kids, were not substantial for the many.”

Dr Thees Spreckelsen, University of Oxford, Co-Author of the report added: “Fish oil or Omega-3 fatty acids are widely regarded as beneficial. However, the evidence on benefits for children’s learning and behaviour is clearly not as strong as previously thought.”

Abstract of the study:

Omega-3 fatty acids are central to brain-development of children. Evidence from clinical trials and systematic reviews demonstrates the potential of long-chain Omega-3 supplementation for learning and behavior. However, findings are inconclusive and in need of robust replication studies since such work is lacking.

Replication of the 2012 DOLAB 1 study findings that a dietary supplementation with the long-chain omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) had beneficial effects on the reading, working memory, and behavior of healthy schoolchildren.

Parallel group, fixed-dose, randomized (minimization, 30% random element), double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (RCT).

Mainstream primary schools (n = 84) from five counties in the UK in 2012–2015.

Healthy children aged 7–9 underperforming in reading (<20th centile). 1230 invited, 376 met study criteria.

600 mg/day DHA (from algal oil), placebo: taste/color matched corn/soybean oil; for 16 weeks.

Main outcome measures
Age-standardized measures of reading, working memory, and behavior, parent-rated and as secondary outcome teacher-rated.

376 children were randomized. Reading, working memory, and behavior change scores showed no consistent differences between intervention and placebo group. Some behavioral subscales showed minor group differences.

This RCT did not replicate results of the earlier DOLAB 1 study on the effectiveness of nutritional supplementation with DHA for learning and behavior. Possible reasons are discussed, particularly regarding the replication of complex interventions

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Filed under Education, Research

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