Could fish oil help autism symptoms in toddlers born prematurely?

By Tim Cutcliffe

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/ David Carillet
© iStock/ David Carillet
Supplementation with long-chain omega-3 oils and gamma linoleic acid (GLA) could help reduce autism symptoms in toddlers born pre-term, new research hints.

Toddlers given a supplement containing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and GLA showed a greater reduction in symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than those given placebo, say researcher writing in The Journal of Nutrition​.

Supplemented toddlers, all of whom had been born highly pre-term at less than 29 weeks gestation age, showed greater improvements on the Brief Infant Toddler Social Emotional Assessment (BITSEA) scale, found the team from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio.

No significant difference was found between the treatment and placebo arms in any other behavioural outcome measure, however, they noted. 

“Despite the small size of the trial, our exploration of treatment effects on parent-reported ASD symptoms suggested improvements in core ASD symptoms as measured by the BITSEA ASD scale, but no significant effects were observed on the basis of other outcome measures,” ​wrote study lead author, Dr. Sarah Keim.


In replicated in larger trials, the findings could potentially provide an alternative to pharmaceutical medications for pre-term children with ASD. Giving them omega fatty acids early when they first show symptoms and the brain is still actively developing, may help them long-term.

"Currently, no medications are available to help children born prematurely with the developmental delays and behaviour problems they often experience. For very young children, the medications that physicians sometimes try tend to have many side effects. And we don't know what effect those medications have on brains that are still developing,"​ said Dr. Keim.  "If using omega fatty acid supplementation helps, it would have a really huge impact for these kids."

"We need to do a larger trial to further understand the potential impacts on a larger group of children."

Dr. Keim and her colleagues are planning further research to study the effect of omega fatty acids in children ages 2-6 years who have ASD. 

Supplement and placebo composition

The supplement group were given daily Omega-3-6-9 Junior (Nordic Naturals, Inc.) treatment for 90 days, composed of 338 mg EPA, 225 mg DHA, 83 mg GLA and oleic acid. The placebo was canola oil, containing 124 mg palmitic acid, 39 mg stearic acid, 513 mg linoleic acid, 225 mg alpha-linolenic acid, and 1346 mg oleic acid.

The presence of omega-3 polyunsaturated acids (PUFAs) in the form of short-chain ALA, does however raise the question of whether canola oil has an active effect rather than being just a placebo.  

Source: The Journal of Nutrition
Volume 148, issue 2, pages 227-235    DOI:  10.1093/jn/nxx047
“ω-3 and ω-6 Fatty Acid Supplementation May Reduce Autism Symptoms Based on Parent Report in Preterm Toddlers”
Authors:  Sarah A. Keim et al

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