The fatty acids found in oily fish could provide a new way to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, according to a study at King’s College London, UK and China Medical University in Taichung, Taiwan.


ADHD is a behavioural disorder that’s characterised by hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and a difficulty in paying attention. Currently, ADHD is most commonly treated using stimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin), which have been shown to reduce symptoms. But a new, natural treatment could be on the cards.

Previous research has shown that children with an omega-3 deficiency are more likely to have more severe ADHD. In this new study, the researchers gave 92 children with ADHD aged 6-18 high doses of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) or a placebo for 12 weeks.

The children with the lowest pre-existing blood levels of omega-3 showed improved attention and vigilance after taking the omega-3 supplements – outdoing even the improvement that’s previously been seen in studies with methylphenidate.

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However, the researchers caution that these improvements weren’t seen in children with normal or high blood levels of omega-3. In children with the higher levels, the treatment even had a negative effect on impulsivity symptoms.

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“Our results suggest that fish oil supplements are at least as effective as conventional pharmacological treatments among those children with ADHD who have omega-3 deficiency,” said Dr Jane Chang, co-lead researcher at King’s College London.

“On the other hand, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and parents should always consult with their children’s psychiatrists since our study suggests there could be negative effects for some children.”


The findings could open the door to personalised treatments for ADHD, where children with lower omega-3 levels are given fish oil supplements instead of standard stimulants.


James Lloyd
James LloydStaff writer, BBC Science Focus

James is staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. He especially enjoys writing about wellbeing and psychology.