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Fish Oil and Children -The Durham Trials

Research has shown that if the brain does not get enough of the proper fatty acids, it will use unsuitable replacement fatty acids and this can negatively affect brain function. Therefore, lack of fatty acids is a factor to consider in relation to learning difficulties and behavior problems in children.

The Regional Education Authority in Durham England is concerned about an increase in the number of children who appear to be underachieving due to the inability to concentrate and focus on tasks for a long time and to find out whether supplementing their diet with omega 3 fatty acids may make a difference.

Dozens of schools and hundreds of children have now participated in several research trials involving fatty acids supplementation with fish oil. These experiments, led by Dr Madeleine Portwood, are now known as the Durham test and have gained significant media attention in the UK and abroad for the dramatic impact of fish oil on classroom learning and behavior. To date, studies have been conducted on preschool, primary and secondary school children.

Oxford Durham Studies

The largest of these trials was conducted in 2002 and involved more than 100 primary school children from 12 different schools in the Durham area, all with developmental disabilities, and some with additional problems related to focus and learning. This trial, known as the Oxford-Durham trial, was conducted in collaboration with Oxford-based Dyslexia Research, and Dr Alex Richardson of Oxford University, who specializes in fatty acids and brain.

The children in the trial were given daily capsules of fish oil or placebo and as the trial was blind twice, no one knew what child was given. Throughout the week, children are provided with supplements by school staff. Each child is given six capsules of 500mg daily from Monday to Friday, each capsule containing fish oil or placebo. Parents give the children the capsule over the weekend and assessments are made throughout the trial.

It can take weeks for the effects of fatty acid supplementation to show that the trial is done within six months with half of the children taking fish oil for 6 months and the other half taking placebo for the first 3 months and fish for the second 3 months.

In the first 3 months, fish oil from the beginning began to show a dramatic increase in reading, spelling and behavior with placebo groups showing a similar increase when they started taking fish oil. In the original fish oil group, in the first 3 months, the average profit for readings was over 9 months and over 6 months for spelling and they continued to show improvement over the first 3 months. When the placebo group switched to fish oil, they showed an increase in reading over 12 months and over 6 months for spelling after only 3 months on fish oil.

The results of this trial have not been fully analyzed but early signs are "encouraging" and according to Dr Madeleine Portwood, up to 40% of children have shown significant improvement.

Preschool trial

Another Durham test involved nursery school children between the ages of 18 months and two and a half years old, 47 of whom completed the trial. After 5 months 91% of those assessed with very poor behavior at the start of the trial had improved, with only 4% rated as still having poor or very poor behavior.

The same improvement was observed for the concentration level with 79% rated as good or excellent after 5 months supply. Language skills also increased significantly compared to the control group.

High school study

This study was conducted in 2004 and focused on how fatty acids can help middle school children with ADHD symptoms; the decision was issued in March, 2006.

At the beginning of the trial, 94% were assessed to have moderate to severe ADHD and a similar score to nonsense, and 89% had additional problems with impulsivity. After 3 months, the rating for ADHD and impulsivity was reduced to 28% with a decline of less than 17%.

In conclusion

The results of the Durham Test appear to validate the claim that the brain needs the right amount of fatty acids to develop and function normally. Fish oil used in this test is high in Omega 3 EPA fatty acids (Eicosapentaenoic Acid), which is considered to be the most important fatty acid to function effectively in the brain itself.

Fish oil is gaining popularity as an effective way of improving not only brain function but also reducing the risk of other health problems, so the UK government is considering the option of providing fish oil to all school children in order to improve nutrition in general.


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