If you skim the headlines of major research journals, sometimes it seems like there’s nothing that omega-3s can’t do. Other times, they seem overrated. Since this is the fourth time Study Deep Dives have covered omega-3 fatty acids in recent history, we won’t bore you with too many details. But, in case you missed it, here’s a very brief primer:
Omega-3 fatty acids are named for their double bond (making the fatty acid “unsaturated,” since it has fewer hydrogen atoms than the maximum) that is three carbons from the omega, or end of the chain. Omega-3s are found in fish and some plants, like flax and walnuts. Both of the omega-3s used in this study, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) come from fish sources rather than plants, and are critical for early brain development. These fatty acids are added to many commercial baby formulas, to mimic the high levels found in breastmilk.
The study under review examined the effects of omega-3 supplementation on the symptoms of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Formerly known as ADD or Attention Deficit Disorder, the 1987 revision of the gold standard for psychiatric and mental disorders, known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, relabeled the disorder ADHD. An additional revision in 1994 classified patients into either the ‘hyperactive-impulsive’ subtype, ‘inattentive’ subtype, or ‘combined’ subtype based on their specific symptoms. ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed childhood disorders, affecting as many as 11% of children in the U.S., or about 6.4 million. The increasing prevalence of ADHD is shown in Figure 1. Medications for ADHD are primarily (and perhaps paradoxically) central nervous system stimulants, with methylphenidate being the most commonly prescribed drug. One of the hypothesized causes of ADHD is lower dopamine production, which may result in unnecessary firing of neurons that are unrelated to the task the brain is trying to complete. The drug allows the decreased levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain to be used more effectively because it blocks reuptake receptors, thus enhancing the functionality of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex that are responsible for cognitive function (check out the sidebar for more on this).