Does fish oil help children to learn?

By Amanda Johnson 11/11/2009

A study featured on TV One’s Close-Up last night certainly hopes to show it does. This new New Zealand study is funded by natural health manufacturers Good Health, and if the fish oil supplements are proven to boost IQ, the results will be a big boost for the manufacturers.

The research is being lead by Kerry Lee from Auckland University, and is looking at 200 or so normal children at West Harbour Primary School. Half have been receiving omega-3 capsules four times daily for 15 weeks and half have received a placebo. Results are due out in January 2010 and it will be very interesting to see if the omega-3 supplements do show any effect on learning in this group of normal children.

This isn’t the first time omega-3 have been linked to learning and behaviour in children. An interesting study — the Oxford Durham Study, published in 2005 by Richardson and Montgomery — looked at children with developmental coordination disorder. Fish oil supplements (558mg/d EPA and 174mg/d DHA) were compared with placebo (olive oil). After three months of treatment there were significant improvements in reading, spelling and behaviour. The magnitude of the differences was not, however, large.

There is no doubt that good nutrition is important for children and that it can help promote good learning. Whether fish oil supplements have any effect remains to be seen. In the meantime, fish itself is a great source of a variety of important nutrients (including B vitamins, iron, zinc, selenium and iodine) and it was disappointing that in the Close-Up report only one child in a group of 19 had eaten fish in a daily food survey. Eating more fish (especially the oily varieties) certainly wouldn’t do our kids any harm and can be served in lots of appetising ways that would appeal to this age group (for example fish nuggets, fish burgers, or cheesy fish pasta bake).

So, could ‘school fish’ become the new ‘school milk? It’s unlikely to happen as a result of this study, as there are many influences on learning and behaviour in children, including a multitude of environmental and genetic factors. I wouldn’t expect really big differences between the two groups of children and I’m doubtful that fish oil supplements will make kids ’really brainy’ or will boost their IQ — but we will see! I’ll await the results of this new research with interest.

0 Responses to “Does fish oil help children to learn?”

  • It surprises me how little fish we do eat. In Darwin, restaurants have lots of fish dishes and a handful of red meat (e.g. steak options). The situation is reversed here- lots of red meat options, and a handful of fish. We lie on oceanic islands where kai moana is one of our largest exports. But we seemed locked in a pastoral mindset.

    Interestingly, in my sojourns in China I would only eat fish and the common refrain was “Oh, you must be smart’.

  • Ben Goldacre has written a fair bit about the ‘Durham trial’ on his BadScience blog – not the Durham work you mention here, but a larger-scale effort that was intended to have all Durham children preparing to sit their GCSE exams (I think) taking a bunch of fish-oil capsules each day. Sponsored by the capsule manufacturers, who must have been very happy. There were all sorts of problems with this study (no placebo, for a start) & the results were not indicative of any significant effect.

  • Yes, I think this “trial” was actually more of an “initiative” by Durham City Council which involved giving children fish oil supplements over an 8-month-period in the hope it would improve exam results. Ben Goldacre does a great summary of the whole thing:

    There are also some interesting comments about this on the Holford Watch website:

  • I remember that last year (?) there was a news item about an Auckland teacher (principal?) who’d decided to ‘test’ the efficacy of fish oil on his students’ learning. Unfortunately in a totally unsystematic, unscientific way that would tell us very little. A couple of letters-to-the-editor pointed this out, carefully & tactfully, & were roundly dissed by others for being so pointy-headed about it; after all, the person concerned only wanted to help his students & how dare scientists be so mean about it?

  • Yes, of course, if it isn’t a good quality scientific study, the results are, unfortunately, meaningless. This latest study by Kerry Lee is part of her doctorate and is being supervised by Welma Stonehouse, who is Associate Professor in nutrition from Massey University, so I think we can expect some valid results. Early results are expected in late January/February 2010 and it is likely to be published later next year, or early 2011. I’m very interested to see the outcome of this one!

  • Does anyone know if this research (the West Harbour Primary school one) has been published? And if so, where?

  • As far as I know this research has been completed and the results are currently being assessed. My understanding is that this study is likely to be published towards then end of this year (2012).