Fish oil pills may aid pupils with learning difficulties

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Food supplements might produce radical improvements in the educational ability of children with learning difficulties, research shows.

Children whose lives are blighted by such neuro-developmental disorders as dyslexia, dyspraxia, hyper-activity or autism could gain by taking a daily supplement of fish and plant extracts, the researchers suggests.

Preliminary results from their six-month investigation into the benefits of supplements found that taking a combination of fish oil, evening primrose oil and vitamin A could have a startling effect on children's concentration and learning.

Analysis at the halfway stage of the study shows remarkable advances among children taking the supplements, while those on a placebo have not shown any improvement.

One child's reading skills improved by the equivalent of four years after only 12 weeks of taking the supplements, the study found. Other children appeared brighter, more outgoing and found concentration easier.

Andrew Westerman, headteacher at the 480-pupil Timothy Hackworth Primary School in Shildon, Co Durham, which is taking part in the study, said: "Some children have become more outgoing and lively as new connections are being made in their brain. It is like lights being switched on." He said he hoped the supplements would help his pupils "achieve their very best".

A total of 120 pupils aged between six and 11 at 13 primary schools in the county have joined the six-month trial, run by a research team led by Dr Madelaine Portwood. She is a senior educational psychologist at Durham County Council's education authority. The project has also shown substantial improvements in the social skills of some children.

Half of the pupils are being given daily supplements, the other half receiving a placebo. No child knows which substance he or she is taking.

Dr Portwood is interested in the theory that the recent rise in learning difficulties is caused by changes in children's diet.

She said: "Why are there so many more children with developmental problems? The most significant change in the last 20 years has been the diet of children, and that is why we are exploring the use of food supplements. This really is a major landmark study which could make a real difference."

Dr Portwood added: "The children's social skills seem to be improving because they are more confident. They are becoming more socially interactive and perhaps this increases the motivation to learn."

The researchers believe their study could lead to new treatments for dyslexia and other learning disorders. The project is based on the theory that learning difficulties may be caused by children's meta-bolisms, which leave them short of essential fatty acids. The study may be widened to children without learning difficulties and to adults if the study's success continues.

Two years ago, a research project in Oxford showed that children displayed impressive improvements in concentration and behaviour after being given supplements containing evening primrose oil and fish oils.

Dr Portwood and her 10-year-old son are taking the food supplements. She said she had noticed a marked improvement in him since he started taking the capsules.

"I wouldn't give them to him if I did not feel they did him any benefit," she added.