Omega-6 and Omega-3 are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), that play an important role in the development and activity of the brain.
On a cellular level, these are involved in the maturation and functioning of the neurons, fluidity of the plasma membrane, and gene expression, and are critical elements for cell communication and learning processes.
The modern diet is very much overloaded with Omega-6 and very depleted in Omega-3 which creates an undesirable imbalance of PUFAs. The intake of Omega-6 has primarily increased due to the consumption of Omega-6 rich seed oils, such as soybean, corn and safflower oil. High intake levels of Omega-6 fatty acids have resulted in inhibiting the effectiveness of the Omega-3s and may also contribute to the reduction of Omega-3 DHA in the brain.
The brain has a unique fatty acid composition with high levels of Omega-3 DHA, but low levels of other Omega-3s, especially EPA. Brain EPA levels are typically 250–300 times lower than DHA, therefore, DHA is quantitatively and undisputedly, the most important Omega-3 fatty acid in the brain.
In recent years, many studies have focused on the potential role of Omega-3, notably DHA in children’s learning, behavioural and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Studies found that consumption of Omega-3, particularly DHA, by school-aged children may enhance cognitive performance, especially in those who habitually consume diets low in Omega-3. The improvements concern cognitive outcomes, such as memory, processing speed, visual-perceptual ability, attention, reading, and spelling skills.
Some studies suggested that abnormalities of fatty acid metabolism may contribute to different neurodevelopmental disorders, including Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder (ADHD), Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Developmental Dyslexia (DD).
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
According to healthdirect, an Australian government website, around 1 in every 20 Australians has Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder (ADHD). It is more common in boys and affects the brain’s executive functioning — the ability to self-regulate and control thoughts, words, actions and emotions. In the United States, ADHD affects anywhere between 4 and 15% of school-aged children. ADHD frequently continues throughout adulthood.
ADHD children and adults have been found to have lower levels of Omega-3s in cellular membranes which correlate with behavioural and learning problems such as conduct, hyperactivity-impulsivity, anxiety, temper-tantrums, and sleep difficulties.
A randomized controlled trial showed that supplementing children (aged 7–9 years) who were underperforming in reading with 600 mg of DHA (from algal oil) improved parent-rated ADHD-type behaviour.
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have been noted to have low DHA and total Omega-3 fatty acids plasma levels. One report found Omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies in virtually 100% of ASD cases. A double-blind randomized controlled trial in children aged 5–17 diagnosed with ASD found benefit on hyperactivity and persistent repetition when given 1.54 g/day of DHA/EPA. And, concluded in a review paper, “In double-blind, randomized, controlled trials, DHA and EPA combinations have been shown to benefit . . . autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and aggression…” Thus, supplementing with long-chain Omega-3s may help patients with ASD.
Developmental Dyslexia (DD)
Developmental Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disabilities. It is defined as a specific reading disorder despite normal intelligence and the absence of sensory or neurological deficiencies.
Several studies investigated the levels of blood fatty acids in children with DD, and it was found that children with the most severe fatty acid deficiencies had poorer reading, spelling and auditory working memory than children with milder PUFA deficiency.
Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD)
In a study of patients with Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), it was found that 90% had deficient EPA/DHA levels in red blood cell membranes. It was also found that supplementation with Omega-3s PUFAs contributed positively, with noted improvements to patients with PPD.
The Importance of Omega 3 for Children
Overall, the value and importance of PUFAs, especially Omega-3 cannot be ignored or underestimated. The extensive studies that have been performed on the influence of the Omega-3 essential fatty acids have on the development and function of the brain indicate there are positive effects that can be gained through dietary supplementation. The improvements with cognitive performance include learning ability, memory, processing speed, visual-perceptual ability, attention, concentration, reading and spelling.
It has also been shown that the negative effects of early depletion in DHA intake on brain functions are difficult—but not impossible—to reverse.
Although the availability of high purity DHA has been extremely limited until recently, it can now be obtained from high quality Algae Oil – provided the algae has not been genetically engineered or the oil been subjected to heavy refining processes.
Kirby A., Derbyshire E. Omega-3/6 Fatty Acids and Learning in Children and Young People: A Review of Randomised Controlled Trials Published in the Last 5 Years. J. Nutr. Food Sci. 2018;8:1–10.
Schuchardt J.P., Huss M., Stauss-Grabo M., Hahn A. Significance of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) for the development and behaviour of children. Eur. J. Pediatr. 2010;169:149–164. doi: 10.1007/s00431-009-1035-8.
Tan M.L., Ho J.J., Teh K.H. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) for children with specific learning disorders. Cochrane Database Syst. Rev. 2016;9:CD009398. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009398.pub3.
Gow R.V., Hibbeln J.R. Omega-3 and treatment implications in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and associated behavioral symptoms. Lipid Technol. 2014;26:7–10. doi: 10.1002/lite.201400002.
Aleci C. Rationale of polyunsaturated fatty acids supplementation in the frame of the magnocellular theory of dyslexia. J. Adv. Med. Pharm. Sci. 2017;12:1–9. doi: 10.9734/JAMPS/2017/32962.
Novak E.M., Dyer R.A., Innis S.M. High dietary ω-6 fatty acids contribute to reduced docosahexaenoic acid in the developing brain and inhibit secondary neurite growth. Brain Res. 2008;1237:136–145. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2008.07.107.
Chen C. T., Liu Z., Ouellet M., Calon F., Bazinet R. P. (2009). Rapid beta-oxidation of eicosapentaenoic acid in mouse brain: an in situ study. Prostaglandins Leukot. Essent. Fatty Acids 80, 157–163. 10.1016/j.plefa.2009.01.005
Richardson A.J., Calvin C.M., Clisby C., Schoenheimer D.R., Montgomery P., Hall J.A., Hebb G., Westwood E., Talcott J., Stein J. Fatty acid deficiency signs predict the severity of reading and related difficulties in dyslexic children. Prostaglandins Leukot. Essent. Fat. Acids (PLEFA) 2000;63:69–74. doi: 10.1054/plef.2000.0194.
Kirby A., Woodward A., Jackson S., Wang Y., Crawford M.A. Childrens’ learning and behaviour and the association with cheek cell polyunsaturated fatty acid levels. Res. Dev. Disabil. 2010;31:731–742. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2010.01.015.
Stonehouse W. Does consumption of LC omega-3 PUFA enhance cognitive performance in healthy school-aged children and throughout adulthood? Evidence from clinical trials. Nutrients. 2014;6:2730–2758. doi: 10.3390/nu6072730.
Vancassel, S.; Durand, G.; Barthelemy, C.; Lejeune, B.; Martineau, J.; Guilloteau, D.; Andres, C.; Chalon, S. Plasma fatty acid levels in autistic children. Prostaglandins Leukot. Essent. Fatty Acids 2001, 65, 1–7.
Cyhlarova E., Bell J.G., Dick J.R., MacKinlay E.E., Stein J.F., Richardson A.J. Membrane fatty acids, reading and spelling in dyslexic and non-dyslexic adults. Eur. Neuropsychopharmacol. 2007;17:116–121. doi: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2006.07.003.
Laasonen M., Erkkilä A.T., Isotalo E., Pulkkinen J.J., Haapanen M.L., Virsu V. Serum lipid fatty acids, phonological processing, and reading in children with oral clefts. Prostaglandins Leukot. Essent. Fat. Acids. 2006;74:7–16. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2005.09.004.
Zelcer M., Goldman R.D. Omega-3 and dyslexia: Uncertain connection. Can. Fam. Physician. 2015;61:768–770.
Gustafsson P.A., Birberg-Thornberg U., Duchen K., Landgren M., Malmberg K., Pelling H., Strandvik H., Karlsson T. EPA supplementation improves teacher-rated behaviour and oppositional symptoms in children with ADHD. Acta Paediatr. 2010;99:1540–1549. doi: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.2010.01871.x.
Kidd, P.M. Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behavior, and mood: Clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids. Altern. Med. Rev. 2007, 12, 207–227. Richardson, A.J.; Burton, J.R.; Sewell, R.P.; Spreckelsen, T.F.; Montgomery, P. Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behavior in children aged 7–9 years: A randomized, controlled trial (the DOLAB Study). PLoS ONE 2012, 7, e43909. Amminger, G.P.; Berger, G.E.; Schafer, M.R.; Klier, C.; Friedrich, M.H.; Feucht, M. Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in children with autism: A double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study.
Biol. Psychiatry 2007, 61, 551–553.
Lyon G.R., Shaywitz S.E., Shaywitz B.A. A definition of dyslexia. Ann. Dyslexia. 2003;53:1–14. doi: 10.1007/s11881-003-0001-9.
World Health Organization . International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems—10th Revision 2010. WHO; Geneva, Switzerland: 2010.
Greiner R.S., Moriguchi T., Hutton A., Slotnick B.M., Salem N., Jr. Rats with low levels of brain docosahexaenoic acid show impaired performance in olfactory-based and spatial learning tasks. Lipids. 1999;34:S239–S243. doi: 10.1007/BF02562305.