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Nutrition linked to development of problem behaviour

Posted:  Thursday, May 21, 2015

The next time you catch your child getting aggressive about an issue or your teenager appearing disinterested in their surroundings, look into what they are eating, suggest researchers from University of Pennsylvania. Their latest highly intriguing study dealing with ‘neurocriminology’ found that fish-derived omega-3 fats may exert long-term neurodevelopmental actions that reduce aggressive or antisocial behaviour in children.

Reported in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, this randomised controlled trial involved administering 100 children aged 8 to 16 a drink containing a gram of omega-3 for 6 months. The control group had 100 children receiving the drink with no supplementation. Parents and children from both the groups underwent a series of personality tests and assessments at 3 time points: at the start of the study, at 6 months and at 12 months.

The tests required parents to rate their children and themselves on “externalizing” aggressive and antisocial behaviour and “internalizing” behaviours such as depression, anxiety and withdrawal. The children rated themselves on these parameters too. The researchers measured the blood omega-3 levels of the children in the experimental group to assess if they recorded higher levels than those in the control group. The results of the personality tests were as follows:

•  Children from both the groups rated themselves flat for both aggressive and antisocial behaviour.

•  At 6 months: The average rate of antisocial and aggressive behaviour reported by parents dropped for both the experimental and control groups. The researchers termed this the ‘placebo effect’.

•  At 12 months: The rate of antisocial and aggressive behaviour returned to baseline for the control group. The experimental group recorded a 42% reduction in scores on externalizing behaviour and a 62% reduction in internalizing behaviour.

•  Surprisingly, at both the 6 and 12 month tests, the parents also showed improvements in their aggressive and antisocial behaviour.

"Omega-3 regulates neurotransmitters, enhances the life of a neuron and increases dendritic branching, but our bodies do not produce it. We can only get it from the environment," said Adrian Raine, the study’s lead author. Other brain imaging studies have found that omega-3 supplementation increases the function of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This region shows a higher rate of damage or dysfunction among criminal offenders observed Raine.

Although the results of this study are preliminary, it brings to light the influence of nutrition on neurodevelopmental processes that modulate behaviour.

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