A Guide for Using Fish Oil as a Treatment for Autism
The prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome (ASP) has increased dramatically over the past 10 years and may now affect as many as 6 out of every 1000 children under the age of 5 years. There is some evidence that ASD may involve a fatty acid imbalance in the neuronal membranes. This guide will briefly describe ASD and review some of the research on the effects of omega-3s on ASD symptoms.
What is Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD?
Both autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are types of developmental disorders involving the brain1. The exact cause of these disorders have so far eluded scientists and researchers, alike. Generally, the only thing distinguishing people with ASDs from others is their communication, interactions with and behavior towards others and lastly, their different learning styles. These learning styles may range from challenged to highly gifted. Autism is the most popular among ASDs, though others such as Asperger’s and pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) also exist. Symptoms may include:
- Absence of “pretend” play & pointing at interesting object
- Failure to look at object other people point to
- Difficulty bonding
- Not making eye-contact & wanting to be solitary
- Difficulty understanding feelings/emotions
- Aversion to cuddling or touching
- “Tuning-out” others, but responding to sounds
- Interested in others, but not relating to them
- Echoing words
- Difficulty expressing needs with words
- Repetitive actions
- Difficulty adjusting to change
- Odd reactions to sensory perceptions (i.e. smell, sound)
- Loss of skills previously acquired (i.e. talking)
Are Fish Oil Supplements Important for People with ASD?
To date, there are mixed reviews concerning the importance of using a fish oil supplement for ASDs. On the one hand, there seems to be a growing body of research suggesting an obvious link between the two. While on the other hand, small studies with limited population samples have yielded insufficient evidence.
For starters, docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), one of the long-chain classifications of omega-3 fatty acids has received the most attention by researchers. Scientific studies2 have shown that “phospholipid fatty acids are major structural components of neuronal cell membranes, which modulate membrane fluidity and hence function”, and furthermore, findings from “clinical and biochemical sources have indicated changes in the metabolism of fatty acids in several psychiatric disorders”. In other words, DHA is important in the production of white matter in the brain and thus is important for the functioning of a healthy brain.
Furthermore, research seems to suggests that there is a direct relationship between lower levels of DHA, and the occurrence of ASDs. A group of Scottish researchers3 have found that a deficiency in EPA and DHA, the main components of fish oil, is clearly linked to ASD. Further support for this claim comes from a study4 with 250 participants (153 with autism and 97 without, aged 2-5). The researchers who led the study noted that DHA in particular was significantly decreased among children with autism.
Additional studies have also suggested that fish oil improves verbal, memory & spelling skills in children. Perhaps more convincingly, according to a U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study5, infants who received formula containing either DHA or DHA and AA scored nearly 6 points higher on tests that measured memory, problem solving, and language.
What Has Been Published?
The plethora of personal success stories involving the use of fish oil supplements for treatment of ASDs has given rise to numerous scientific studies.
In addition to anecdotal evidence that children with autism may benefit from supplementation with fish oils, a recent double-blind, placebo-controlled trial6 provides preliminary evidence of this. Both stereotypy (ritual, repetitive movements) and hyperactivity scores decreased significantly in the group of children treated with fish oil.
A study7 sponsored by Nordic Naturals, a supplement company, found that omega-3 fish oil significantly boosted autistic children’s scores in 8 different areas on language and learning tests.
The article states that, “Investigators also noted the importance of fish oil purity,” and that Nordic Naturals “…is working to set exacting standards for freshness, purity, and taste in omega EFA supplements.” Nordic Naturals is doing just that by having their fish oil independently tested by International Fish Oil Standards, an organization providing third party validation of fish oil in 5 areas:
- CRN/WHO Testing Categories
- Greater than 60% Omega-3 Concentration
- Oxidation less than 75% CRN standard
- PCB levels less than 50% of CRN standard
- Dioxin levels 50% less than WHO standard
Other researchers are still not sure there is enough data to support the claim that omega-3s are beneficial in the treatment of ASDs. Findings from one review 8 analyzed six small published studies, all with less than 30 participants, and found a combination of mixed results ranging from improvements in areas such as: language and learning skills, parental observations of general health and behavior, a clinician-administered symptom scale, and clinical observations of anxiety. However, do to the limited nature of the studies and small sample size the researchers remained skeptical.
Increasingly, researchers are exploring autism and ASDs as a multi-faceted condition – not just a disorder of fate. To be sure, much more research is still need in this area. Given the wide-ranging health benefits already established for omega-3 supplements, though, it is worth a try as an alternative to harsh chemical treatments.
If you think your child might have some type of developmental delay, or is showing some of the symptoms of ASD, contact the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities at www.nichcy.org/states.htm or call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at 1-800-232-4636. In addition, CDC has links to information for families at www.cdc.gov/actearly. If there is a problem, it is very important to get your child help as soon as possible.
1 Centers For Disease Control: Autism Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/freematerials.html. Date Accessed: July 9, 2010.
2 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 Jul;65(1):1-7. PubMed PMID: 11487301.
3 Bell JG, MacKinlay EE, Dick JR, MacDonald DJ, Boyle RM, Glen AC. Essential fatty acids and phospholipase A2 in autistic spectrum disorders. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2004 Oct;71(4):201-4. PubMed PMID: 15301788.
4 Wiest MM, German JB, Harvey DJ, Watkins SM, Hertz-Picciotto I. Plasma fatty acid profiles in autism: a case-control study. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Apr;80(4):221-7. PubMed PMID: 19307110.
5 Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, March 2000. http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/fats.html#faintelligence. Date Accessed: July 12, 2010.
6 Amminger GP, Berger GE, Schafer MR, Klier C, Friedrich MH, Feucht M. Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in children with autism: a double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Feb 15;61(4):551-3. Epub 2006 Aug 22. PubMed PMID: 16920077.
7 Patrick L, Salik, R. New Study Shows Benefits for Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome With Essential Fatty Acid Supplementation. Autism-Aspergers Digest. 2004. http://www.npicenter.com/anm/templates/newsARes.aspx?articleid=11454&zoneid=28. Date Accessed: July 12, 2010.
8 Bent S, Bertoglio K, Hendren RL. Omega-3 fatty acids for autistic spectrum disorder: a systematic review. J Autism Dev Disord. 2009 Aug;39(8):1145-54. Epub 2009 Mar 31. Review. PubMed PMID: 19333748; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2710498.