Something fishy's going on

Trials indicate that fish-oil supplements - and a balanced diet - may do wonders for pupils' brainpower. Caitlin Davies reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Six months ago, when a Durham secondary student was asked to repeat a string of numbers, he could only remember three. Three months later, he could not only recite seven numbers in a forward sequence, but also five backwards. The apparent reason for the improvement? A fish-oil supplement.

Six months ago, when a Durham secondary student was asked to repeat a string of numbers, he could only remember three. Three months later, he could not only recite seven numbers in a forward sequence, but also five backwards. The apparent reason for the improvement? A fish-oil supplement.

The idea of using fish-oil supplements to aid concentration in primary-school children is not new, but now it's been tried on an older age group. And, according to Dr Madeleine Portwood, a senior educational psychologist at Durham LEA, the results are impressive. "For half the kids, the supplements have had a dramatic effect on their memory," she says, "and many have improved their perceptual skills." And the only side effect, she says, was the occasional attack of loose stools.

The reason the children had problems with concentration in the first place may be down to diet. Most teenagers' diets are heavily skewed towards omega six rather than omega three fatty acids - but it is the omega threes that are essential for brain development and function. In the past we got these fatty acids in the right balance from our diet - such as fish and seafood - but less so today, when so many foods are processed.

In 2002, ground-breaking research was carried out at 12 Durham primary schools, with a six-month trial involving 120 children with learning and behavioural disorders. It was run by Dr Portwood and Dr Alex Richardson, a senior research fellow at Oxford University. After daily doses of a fish-oil supplement, about 40 per cent of the children apparently improved in reading, writing and general behaviour. This appeared to prove that a diet rich in essential fatty acids could relieve the effects of dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyspraxia (difficulties involving physical coordination).

Then came the BBC Child of Our Time documentary, in which two young children were given fish-oil supplements with dramatic results. Media interest was intense. Parents across the country immediately began trying out supplements, despite the fact that the results of the Durham trial had not been published.

While that trial has now gone to peer review, Dr Portwood has set about a new study, this time at Greenfield School Community and Arts College at Newton Aycliffe. There, staff identified 20 students with a range of behavioural problems, and gave them three capsules of a supplement called Eye Q twice a day for three months. Three students dropped out, leaving 16 boys and one girl. At the start and end of the study, the students underwent a "battery of tests", says Dr Portwood, including measures of concentration such as memory tests.

"I'm wading through the data now and there is not a single student who hasn't improved in terms of concentration," says John Clare, Greenfield's deputy head. "What we're seeing is the ability of the mind to take hold of itself."

He says there was no noticeable improvement in behaviour (and in some cases it actually got worse), nor in spelling or reading. But when it comes to writing he's very excited. At the beginning of the study the students could barely write for a minute without getting distracted. After three months, writing for 15 minutes wasn't a problem. "And as for the amount they had written," he says, "it was absolutely stunning." He also reels off standard assessment scores, saying that many students improved by more than 10 points, moving from normal to above average.

But Dr Richardson, who ran the initial Durham study, dismisses these "results" as scientifically meaningless. While she supports the idea that fish-oil supplements have benefits, she is scathing about the Greenfield research. "What is it that makes that a study?" she asks. "Media coverage of this sort of thing makes scientific study harder. Omega-three supplements can help some people, but you can only prove that with randomised trials."

The Durham trial was double-blind, randomised and placebo-controlled. But Dr Portwood says there was "no point" in doing placebo trials at Greenfield because it was already "proved" that the supplements work. Her study is yet to go to peer review.

But the biggest worry is that vulnerable parents, desperate for a solution to their children's problems, may see fish-oil supplements as a quick fix for learning or behavioural disorders. And they don't come cheap - 60 Eye Q capsules cost about £9.

Dr Richardson is now conducting trials involving adults with dyslexia, which she presented at an international fatty-acids conference in Brighton last week. She's found that the higher the omega-three concentration in the blood, the better a person's reading becomes. She is now carrying out a randomised controlled trial with adult volunteers to assess the effects of omega-three supplements.

education@independent.co.uk

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