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Supplementation With Essential Fatty Acids Shown To Improve Performance in Children With ADHD and Dyslexia

James Meschino DC, MS, ROHP

In the February issue of the journal, Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, researchers A. Richardson and B. Puri reported the results of their pilot study, which tested the effects of essential fatty acid supplementation on 41 learning-disabled boys and girls (aged 8-12) with symptoms of dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study duration was three months and tested an essential fatty acid supplement containing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from fish oil, and gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and linoleic acid, derived from evening primrose oil.  This study showed that a variety of symptoms characteristic of ADHD improved in the children receiving the fatty acid mixture compared to an olive oil placebo, without any apparent side effects.  To assess outcomes a questionnaire widely used to assess responses to drugs like Ritalin and Adderall was given to each child’s parents to assess changes in behavior and mental performance.  This included measures of inattention, restlessness-impulsiveness, anxiousness-shyness, and cognitive problems.  After three months of daily use, notable improvements were observed in most of the scores among the children receiving the special fatty acid mixture.  The study was sponsored by the Dyslexia Research Trust (, an Oxford-based charity dedicated to uncovering the biological basis of dyslexia and related conditions in order to develop better methods of identification and management.

Abundant evidence suggests that specific fatty acids are important to brain function and development.  According to the researchers of this study, and other sources, these fatty acids are often under consumed or under produced in children with behavioral and learning challenges.  (1,2,3,4) This appears to be especially true for DHA, a member of the omega-3 group of fatty acids, mainly derived from cold water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and other marine animals.  DHA is also produced in the body from EPA, which can be produced from the elongation and desaturation of alpha-linolenic acid (the most prevalent fatty acid in flaxseed oil).  DHA is present in breast milk and not in cow’s milk.  Due to its importance in brain development and function, as well as the development of the nervous system and the retina, many physicians recommend breast-feeding or the use of infant formula that contains DHA. (5,6) One study showed that infants receiving supplemental DHA in their infant formulas scored significantly higher in mental development, as gauged by memory, problem solving, and related skills. (7) It is also stressed that pre-term infants be supplemented with DHA since these infants are incubated and not breast-fed.  (8)

The pilot study by Richardson and Puri, has provided further evidence that essential fatty acid supplementation can be an important aspect of the complementary management of ADHD and dyslexia, and possibly in other learning disabilities cases.  (1)


  1. Dietary Supplement Information Bureau. 30, 2002.  New hope for children with learning disabilities
  2. Mitchell EA, Aman MG, Turbott SH, Manku M. Clinical characteristics and serum essential fatty acid levels in hyperactive children. Clin Pediatr 1987;26:406–11
  3. Stevens LJ, Zentall SS, Deck JL, et al. Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Am J Clin Nutr 1995;62:761–8
  4. Aman MG, Mitchell EA, Turbott SH. The effects of essential fatty acid supplementation by Efamol in hyperactive children. J Abnorm Child Psychol 1987;15:75–90
  5. Birch EE, et al. A randomized controlled trial of early dietary supply of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and mental development in term infants. Dev Med Child Neur. 2000;(42):174-181
  6. Jorgensen MH, Hernell O, Hughes E, Michaelsen KF. Is there a relation between docosahexaenoic acid concentration in mothers’ milk and visual development in term infants? J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. Mar2001;32(3):293-6
  7. Willatts P, Forsyth JS, DiModugno MK, et al. Effect of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in infant formula on problem solving at 10 months of age. Lancet. Aug1998;352(9129):688-91
  8. Uauy R, Mena P. Requirements for long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in the preterm infant. Curr Opin Pediatr. Apr1999;11(2):115-20
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