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Algal DHA omega-3 boosts reading capability in underperforming children: Study

By Kacey Culliney , 10-Sep-2012
Last updated on 10-Sep-2012 at 17:05 GMT

Daily supplementation of algal DHA omega-3 may boost a child’s reading ability and improve behaviour, research finds.

Published in the PloS journal, researchers from Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention found DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) supplementation a “safe and effective way to improve reading and behaviour in healthy but underperforming children”.

The independent study was funded by health and nutrition giant DSM Nutritional Products and used the firm’s algal DHA omega-3 oil in the research.

Findings showed that supplementation has a robust impact in aiding ‘underperforming’ children – those with a reading ability two years behind the expected level (≤20th centile) and lower at ≤10th centile.

Children in the ≤20th centile sub-group taking DHA saw an 8 month improvement in reading age and those in the ≤10th centile group gained 1.9 months.

“These findings are really quite promising,” Dr Alex Richardson, head author and researcher of the study, told NutraIngredients.

Richardson explained that it is well-known and documented that the critical period for omega-3 impacts on brain function is early on; pre-natal especially.

“This is what makes the findings all the more impressive as it showed DHA impact well outside the most critical period,” Richardson said.

“We have shown that in the mainstream, general population, something as simple and safe as DHA can benefit reading abilities,” she said.

Boosting just the underperformers?

However, Richardson said further investigation is warranted as overall findings showed no benefits of DHA supplementation to the sample as a whole, which included children in the lower third reading ability scale.

Results showed subtle reading improvements across the sample but findings did not differ between treatment groups.

“It is interesting but I have no way of knowing why there was no impact on the overall lower third’s reading abilities,” Richardson said.

“We’ve got to find out which groups of children this treatment benefits,” she said.

A replication study is underway covering a larger sample size pinpointing children in the lower fifth of reading abilities (≤20th centile), which is the sub-group the initial study was supposed to be looking at, she revealed.

Study details

The study was a randomised, controlled trial used a sample of 362 school children aged 7-9 years from mainstream primary schools across Oxfordshire. It was focused on those with reading abilities in the lower third of expectations.

Over a 16-week intervention period, 180 children in the ‘Active Group’ received a fixed dose of 600mg of algal DHA each day in three 500mg capsules each providing 200mg DHA. A ‘Placebo Group’ of 182 received 500mg three times a day of a corn or soybean oil placebo designed with taste and colour match.

Reading ability, working memory and behaviour were measured outcomes that were based on British Ability Scales (BAS II) assessments and parent/teacher observations using the Conners’ Rating Scales.

Children with learning or behavioural difficulties were excluded, and those who had English as a second language as well as children who ate fish more than twice a week or took omega-3 supplements.

Building on science

This study builds on previous research that looks into the impact of omega-3 supplementation on certain young populations – such as children with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia or DCD (developmental coordination disorder).

“It was high time to do a pragmatic, real-world study… We extended previous research into the mainstream, general population,” she said.

“This is the first study to show significant benefits of DHA in children in mainstream schools,” she added.

“I do hope this current study will spur further research worldwide,” Richardson said.

Source: PloS One
"Docosahexaenoic Acid for Reading, Cognition and Behavior in Children Aged 7–9 Years: A Randomized, Controlled Trial (The DOLAB Study)"
Authors: A. Richardson, JR. Burton, RP. Sewell, TF. Spreckelsen and P. Montgomery

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