Supplementation with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA may help improve reading skills and behavior in kids who need help most — those whose test scores place them in the bottom 20% of their elementary school class — according to a new controlled trial.
Researchers at Oxford University’s Center for Evidence-Based Intervention studied 362 7- to 9-year-old children who had placed in the bottom third of their class in reading scores. For 16 weeks, the children were given either a placebo or 600 mg of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The DHA was extracted from algae, which are the original source of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.
Researchers then tracked students’ improvement on a widely used British reading skills test and asked parents and teachers to rate changes in the kids’ behavior, including their attention and restlessness.
Over the 16-week trial, the children receiving placebos progressed in their reading skills as expected. But those students who received DHA and had scored in the bottom 20% of readers at the start of the study advanced by nearly an extra month, while those in the bottom 10% gained nearly two extra months of progress. Students whose reading skills were less impaired — those whose scores had placed them at the highest end of the bottom third — did not see extra improvements with DHA.
Parents of the kids who received DHA also rated their children as more attentive and less restless, as compared with those who got placebo. However, teachers did not report improvement in the children’s behavior.
Noting that prior studies have suggested that omega-3 supplementation can improve behavior in children diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), lead author Alexandra Richardson, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Center says: “What’s new here is that we’re showing a benefit outside of a clinical population in healthy children, albeit with reading difficulties, and we showed a meaningful improvement.”
DHA is an essential nutrient, which cannot be manufactured by the body, and is used by virtually all cells. It is especially important for vision and brain function, particularly during early development. “DHA is critical for vision and it’s possible that improvements in visual perception might allow children to read better, but it all remains speculative,” says Richardson.
“We focused specifically on reading here,” notes Paul Montgomery, a co-author of the paper and professor of psychosocial interventions at Oxford, explaining that the effects of poor reading in schoolage children can be lifelong, contributing to everything from unemployment to the risk of criminal activity down the line. “If [reading] is not mastered at that stage, how that rattles through and affects [children’s] life chances later on is profound.”
Most Western diets are deficient in omega-3s, whose main dietary source is oily fish like salmon and sardines, as well as flax seeds and walnuts. To make matters worse, the typical Western diet also includes high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which can substitute for omega-3s in some functions, but are not as effective.
“The sheer difficulty and expense of other forms of intervention, when compared with something as simple as making sure kids are getting what is known to be an essential nutrient in their diet, is something we think deserves more attention than it’s had to date,” says Richardson, adding that if the results of the current study are replicated, many children could benefit.
But Charles Hulme, professor of psychology at University College London, who was not associated with the new research, had concerns about the statistical analysis used in the study. He called the overall design “good,” but he thinks that the way the data analysis was done may have overstated the effects of DHA. “For children like this, with relatively severe reading problems, [the change seen] is of little, if any, educational significance,” he says, adding, “I think this trial is too brief — only 16 weeks — to have a realistic chance of finding effects on reading, even if they exist.”
Richardson acknowledges that follow-up research is needed. “We’re the first to say this needs replication,” she says, noting that her group is already working on a larger study that targets only the children with the very lowest reading scores. “We’d like to think it should be taken up by others as well.”
The research, published in the journal PLOS One, was funded by DSM Nutritional Products, which made the supplement used in the study but was not involved in the data analysis.