Support for benefits of omega-3 for poorest readers

September, 2012

A large-ish study of primary school children has found that omega-3 supplementation may help many of those who are struggling most with reading.

The question of whether supplements of omega-3 fatty acids can help memory and cognition has been a contentious one, with some studies showing a positive effect and others failing to find an effect. My own take on this issue is that, like so many other things, it all depends on what you’re working with. It seems unsurprising if only those who have a deficient diet, or greater demands on their system (e.g., because of stress or age), or greater needs (e.g., because of a lack of cognitive reserve) might benefit from supplementation. A new study is a case in point.

The study involved 362 3rd, 4th, and 5th year students (mostly aged 7-9) from 74 schools, all of whom were reading poorly (in the lowest third). Participants were given 600 mg/day DHA (from algal oil), or a taste/color matched corn/soybean oil placebo. This was given in three capsules throughout the day, for 16 weeks.

The study found no significant improvement in reading or working memory for the DHA group as a whole, and although parents did report fewer behavioral problems, this was not confirmed by teachers.

However, there was a significant effect on reading if only those in the worst-performing 20% are considered (224 children), and an even greater effect if only those in the worst-performing 10% (105 children) are considered.

There was no significant effects for working memory, but I observe that this seems to be due to the much greater variability between individuals in the worst-performing groups (with this particularly evident in the bottom-10% group). It seems likely that whether or not DHA supplementation improves working memory capacity, depends on the factors affecting an individual’s WMC. Interestingly, a U.K. study that looked at the effects of omega-3 supplements on reading found highly significant benefits for those with Developmental Coordination Disorder.

The researchers do say that they had originally intended to look only at the poorest 20%, but decided to extend it to the lowest third when their participant numbers failed to reach the desired threshold (over half of the participant pool declined to take part).

The other point, of course, and typically for this research, is that participants only took the supplements for four months. We cannot rule out greater effects, and to a broader range of individuals, if they were taken for longer. There is also the question of compliance — compliance for those given at school was about 75% on average, and parental compliance is unknown.

In summary, I would say this is affirmation that omega-3 oils can be helpful for some individuals, but it shouldn’t be assumed that it’s a magic bullet for all.

Reference: 

[3069] Richardson, A. J., Burton J. R., Sewell R. P., Spreckelsen T. F., & Montgomery P.
(2012).  Docosahexaenoic Acid for Reading, Cognition and Behavior in Children Aged 7–9 Years: A Randomized, Controlled Trial (The DOLAB Study).
PLoS ONE. 7(9), e43909 - e43909.
Full text available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0043909

Richardson AJ, Montgomery P (2005) The Oxford-Durham study: a randomized, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics 115: 1360–1366.
 

Related News

Is there, or is there not, a gender gap in mathematics performance? And if there is, is it biological or cultural?

In yet another study of the effects of pollution on growing brains, it has been found that children who grew up in Mexico City (known for its very high pollution levels) performed significantly worse on cognitive tests than those from Polotitlán, a city with a strong air quality rating.

Math-anxiety can greatly lower performance on math problems, but just because you suffer from math-anxiety doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to perform badly.

Data from parents and teachers of 2000 randomly selected children has revealed that only 29% of children with attention problems finished high school compared to 89% of children without such problems. When it came to hyperactivity, the difference was smaller: 40% versus 77%.

In the study, 18 children (aged 7-8), 20 adolescents (13-14), and 20 young adults (20-29) were shown pictures and asked to decide whether it was a new picture or one they had seen earlier.

Brain imaging data from 103 healthy people aged 5-32, each of whom was scanned at least twice, has demonstrated that wiring to the

One survey of nearly 200 undergraduate college students who were not living with a parent or legal guardian found that 55% reported getting less than seven hours sleep. This is consistent with other surveys.

Childhood amnesia — our inability to remember almost everything that happened to us when very young — is always interesting. It’s not as simple as an inability to form long-term memories.

Following several recent studies pointing to the negative effect of air pollution on children’s cognitive performance (see this April 2010 news report and

It has been difficult to train individuals in such a way that they improve in general skills rather than the specific ones used in training.

Pages

Subscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest health newsSubscribe to Latest news