Category Archives: Childhood Attention Problems

Omega-3 may be a promising intervention for childhood behavioral problems

disciplineWe’ve already come to understand that there are certain controversial ingredients that can play an important role in childhood behaviors like hyperactivity. Artificial dyes, names, have been found to cause hyperactivity and exacerbate ADHD behaviors in our kids. It is coming to light, however, that overall nutrition may play a larger role than we thought in negative childhood behaviors.

At the forefront of a field known as “neurocriminology,” Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania has long studied the interplay between biology and environment when it comes to antisocial and criminal behavior. With strong physiological evidence that disruption to the emotion-regulating parts of the brain can manifest in violent outbursts, impulsive decision-making and other behavioral traits associated with crime, much of Raine’s research involves looking at biological interventions that can potentially ward off these behavioral outcomes.

A new study by Raine now suggests that omega-3, a fatty acid commonly found in fish oil, may have long-term neurodevelopmental effects that ultimately reduce antisocial and aggressive behavior problems in children.

He is a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Perelman School of Medicine.

Along with Raine, the study featured Jill Portnoy a graduate student in the Department of Criminology, and Jianghong Liu, an associate professor in the Penn School of Nursing. They collaborated with Tashneem Mahoomed of Mauritius’ Joint Child Health Project and Joseph Hibbeln of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

It was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

When Raine was a graduate student, he, his advisor and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study of children in the small island nation of Mauritius. The researchers tracked the development of children who had participated in an enrichment program as 3-year-olds and also the development of children who had not participated. This enrichment program had additional cognitive stimulation, physical exercise and nutritional enrichment. At 11 years, the participants showed a marked improvement in brain function as measured by EEG, as compared to the non participants. At 23, they showed a 34 percent reduction in criminal behavior.

Raine and his colleagues were interested in teasing apart the mechanisms behind this improvement. Other studies suggested the nutritional component was worth a closer look.

“We saw children who had poor nutritional status at age 3 were more antisocial and aggressive at 8, 11 and 17,” Raine said. “That made us look back at the intervention and see what stood out about the nutritional component. Part of the enrichment was that the children receiving an extra two and a half portions of fish a week.”

Other research at the time was beginning to show that omega-3 is critical to brain development and function.

“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,” Raine said.
Research on the neuroanatomy of violent criminals suggested this might be a place to intervene. Other brain-imaging researchers have shown that omega-3 supplementation increases the function of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region Raine found to have higher rates of damage or dysfunction in criminal offenders.

Raine’s new study featured a randomized controlled trial where children would receive regular omega-3 supplements in the form of a juice drink. One hundred children, aged 8 to 16, would each receive a drink containing a gram of omega-3 once a day for six months, matched with 100 children who received the same drink without the supplement. The children and parents in both groups took a series of personality assessments and questionnaires at the start.

After six months, the researchers administered a simple blood test to see if the children in the experimental group had higher levels of omega-3 than those in the controls. They also had both parents and children take the personality assessments. Six months after that, the researchers had parents and children take the assessment again to see if there were any lasting effects from the supplements.

The assessments had parents rate their children on “externalizing” aggressive and antisocial behavior, such as getting into fights or lying, as well as “internalizing” behavior, such as depression, anxiety and withdrawal. Children were also asked to rate themselves on these traits.

While the children’s self-reports remained flat for both groups, the average rate of antisocial and aggressive behavior as described by the parents dropped in both groups by the six-month point. Critically, however, those rates returned to the baseline for the control group but remained lowered in the experimental group, at the 12-month point.

“Compared to the baseline at zero months,” Raine said, “both groups show improvement in both the externalizing and internalizing behavior problems after six months. That’s the placebo effect.

“But what was particularly interesting was what was happening at 12 months. The control group returned to the baseline while the omega-3 group continued to go down. In the end, we saw a 42 percent reduction in scores on externalizing behavior and 62 percent reduction in internalizing behavior.”

At both the six- and 12-month check-ins, parents also answered questionnaires about their own behavioral traits. Surprisingly, parents also showed an improvement in their antisocial and aggressive behavior. This could be explained by the parents taking some of their child’s supplement, or simply because of a positive response to their child’s own behavioral improvement.

The researchers caution that this is still preliminary work in uncovering the role nutrition plays in the link between brain development and antisocial behavior. The changes seen in the one-year period of the experiment may not last, and the results may not be generalizable outside the unique context of Mauritius.

Beyond these caveats, however, there is reason to further examine omega-3′s role as a potential early intervention for antisocial behavior.

“As a protective factor for reducing behavior problems in children,” Liu said, “nutrition is a promising option; it is relatively inexpensive and can be easy to manage.”

Follow-up studies will include longer-term surveillance of children’s behavioral traits and will investigate why their self-reports did not match the parental reports.

Omega-3s have already shown a number of beneficial health effects. It wouldn’t surprise at all if further study does show that one of those health benefits is improved behavioral problems in at-risk children. Any number of parents of ADHD children have turned to Omega-3s as a natural treatment and have attested to its positive effects for their kids.

Foods with real nutritional value do positive things for our bodies and brains. That’s always been true. It’s our own awareness of that truth that’s really just now being recognized.

Reading difficulties may be related to low levels of Omega-3

While it isn’t in the news often, is aware that there are millions of school-aged children worldwide who have difficulty learning to read and mastering proficiency of this basic life skill. We’re also very aware that often reading difficulties can severely affect a child’s self-esteem, make them more prone to bullying by other kids and change their perception of learning in general. Our hearts go out to these kids. We know that their parents, caregivers and teachers work very hard to help them develop their reading skills and that they are required to work much harder than their peers to achieve the same learning levels. It can’t be easy. Today we read about new research coming out of the United Kingdom that may hold some significant information (and eventually help) for kids with reading challenges.

An Oxford University study has shown that a representative sample of UK schoolchildren aged seven to nine years had low levels of key Omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. Furthermore, the study found that children’s blood levels of the long-chain Omega-3 DHA (the form found in most abundance in the brain) ‘significantly predicted’ how well they were able to concentrate and learn.

The study was presented at the conference by co-authors Dr Alex Richardson and Professor Paul Montgomery from Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention. It is one of the first to evaluate blood Omega-3 levels in UK schoolchildren. The long-chain Omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) found in fish, seafood and some algae, are essential for the brain’s structure and function as well as for maintaining a healthy heart and immune system. Parents also reported on their child’s diet, revealing to the researchers that almost nine out of ten children in the sample ate fish less than twice a week, and nearly one in ten never ate fish at all. The government’s guidelines for a healthy diet recommend at least two portions of fish a week. This is because like vitamins, omega-3 fats have to come from our diets — and although humans can in theory make some EPA and DHA from shorter-chain omega-3 (found in some vegetable oils), research has shown this conversion is not reliable, particularly for DHA, say the researchers.

Blood samples were taken from 493 schoolchildren, aged between seven and nine years, from 74 mainstream schools in Oxfordshire. All of the children were thought to have below-average reading skills, based on national assessments at the age of seven or their teachers’ current judgements. Analyses of their blood samples showed that, on average, just under two per cent of the children’s total blood fatty acids were Omega-3 DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and 0.5 per cent were Omega-3 EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), with a total of 2.45 per cent for these long-chain Omega-3 combined. This is below the minimum of 4 per cent recommended by leading scientists to maintain cardiovascular health in adults, with 8-12 per cent regarded as optimal for a healthy heart, the researchers reported.

Co-author Professor Paul Montgomery said: ‘From a sample of nearly 500 schoolchildren, we found that levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in the blood significantly predicted a child’s behavior and ability to learn. Higher levels of Omega-3 in the blood, and DHA in particular, were associated with better reading and memory, as well as with fewer behavior problems as rated by parents and teachers. These results are particularly noteworthy given that we had a restricted range of scores, especially with respect to blood DHA but also for reading ability, as around two-thirds of these children were still reading below their age-level when we assessed them. Although further research is needed, we think it is likely that these findings could be applied generally to schoolchildren throughout the UK.’
The current findings build on earlier work by the same researchers, showing that dietary supplementation with Omega-3 DHA improved both reading progress and behavior in children from the general school population who were behind on their reading. is enthusiastic about the future implications of these important findings. We already understand the significance of a healthy diet for children. We know that childhood obesity is a rampant, worldwide problem and that poor diet during childhood can set up a generation of children for severe health problems later on in life. The importance of Omega-3 fatty acids in a child’s diet, however, may have a strong influence on their educational abilities and might just promote the “ease of learning” that every child deserves.

Healthy eating habits are especially important during pregnancy devotes many blog posts to the importance of healthy eating habits. While there are many contributors to the worldwide obesity crisis, we do know with certainty that the prevalence of processed foods and beverages in our diets stands out as one of the significant causes of the current, continually growing problem of obesity. Particularly disturbing among children, rates of obesity keep climbing as healthy dietary habits continue to devolve around the globe. So we continually reiterate the importance of avoiding processed foods and beverages and emphasize the significant health benefits of fresh, whole foods prepared at home.

Today we read about a new study that underscores the importance of healthy eating habits during pregnancy, and the effects of the diets of expectant mothers on the next generation. Researchers have found that mothers who eat junk food while pregnant are more likely to have children with mental health problems.

Researchers from Deakin University in Australia, alongside researchers from Norway, analyzed more than 23,000 mothers who were a part of the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort study.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, gathered information regarding the mothers’ diets throughout pregnancy and their children’s diets at both 18 months and 3 years of age.

The mothers were also asked to complete questionnaires when their children were 18 months, 3-years and 5-years-old to establish symptoms of depression, anxiety, conduct disorder and ADHD. The researchers then analyzed the relationship between the mothers’ and children’s diets, and the mental health symptoms and behaviors in the children aged 18 months to five-years-old.

Results of the study reveal that mothers who eat more unhealthy foods during pregnancy, such as sweet drinks, refined cereals and salty foods, have children with increased behavioral problems, such as aggression and tantrums.

Additionally, the findings show that children who eat more unhealthy foods in their first years of life, or who lack nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, also show increased aggression and behavioral problems, as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Associate professor Felice Jacka, researcher at the IMPACT Strategic Research Center at Deakin University, says: “It is becoming even more clear that diet matters to mental health right across the age spectrum.”

“These new findings suggest that unhealthy and ‘junk’ foods may have an impact on the risk for mental health problems in children, and they add to the growing body of evidence on the impact of unhealthy diets on the risk for depression, anxiety and even dementia. The changes to our food systems, including the shift to more high-energy, low nutrition foods developed and marketed by the processed food industry, have led to a massive increase in obesity-related illnesses right across the globe,” she says.

While there is no need for mothers to go on special diets during pregnancy, it is important to eat a variety of different foods every day to make sure that both mother and child are getting the right balance of nutrients.

Other studies have also suggested potential health risks of eating junk food while pregnant. Animal research from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 2006 suggested a link between unhealthy food during pregnancy and the risk of obesity in offspring. thinks it’s important to note that just as there has been an upswing in childhood obesity rates, there has also been an upswing in childhood depression and behavioral difficulties. While there’s been no definitive link between diet and childhood mental health, it is interesting that both obesity and depression/behavior challenges have risen at the same time that the proliferation of processed foods and beverages in our food supply is higher than it’s ever been. Certainly food for thought. While we want everyone to make the healthiest dietary choices, we want to make sure that expectant mothers everywhere take especially good care of themselves, for both their own well-being and the well-being of their precious children.

Yet another reason children and soda don’t mix

Everyone in the community is very familiar with our view of soda. We don’t like it. There are quite a few different reasons and we can name some of them readily – high fructose corn syrup, sodium benzoate, phosphoric acid, artificial colors, artificial flavors, aspartame, acesulfame potassium and those really are just a few. Trust us, we could go on and on. Sodas offer no nutritional value and a myriad of possible problems. And today we read a new study that has just added a new possible problem to an already long list.

It appears that soda may cause young children to become aggressive and develop attention problems, according to a study published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

Researchers from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, the University of Vermont and Harvard School of Public Health, studied around 3,000 children aged 5.

All children were enrolled in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study – a cohort study that follows mothers and children from 20 large cities in the US.

The researchers asked the mothers of the children to report their child’s soft drink consumption. Their child’s behavior in the 2 months prior to the study was reported through a “Child Behavior Checklist.”

Just over 40% of the children consumed a minimum of one serving of soft drinks a day, while 4% consumed four or more soft drinks a day.

The study results found that any level of soft drink consumption was linked to higher levels of aggressive behavior, as well as more attention and withdrawal problems.

Compared with children who did not consume any soft drinks, those who had four or more soft drinks a day were over twice as likely to:

• Destroy other people’s belongings
• Physically attack others, and
• Get into fights.

Dr. Shakira Suglia, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, says: “We found that the child’s aggressive behavior score increased with every increase in soft drinks servings per day.”

The study authors say there has been a lot of research on the effects of soft drinks in adults. But the relationship between soft drinks and child behavior has not been closely evaluated until now.

They note that although their study has been unable to identify exactly why soft drinks can cause these behaviors in children, they recommend that limiting or abolishing a child’s soft drink consumption could combat this issue. looks forward to more detailed studies that focus on a possible causal relationship between children’s soda consumption and aggressive behavior. Drinking soda has been linked to diabetes and heart disease. It is considered a major contributor in the obesity crisis. And it adds nothing to our health and well-being. Those statements alone are good enough reasons to keep sodas away from our children. This study certainly points out additional problems with small children and soda consumption. Children require a healthy beginning in order to encourage healthy habits throughout their lifetime. Let’s help them get the healthy start they all deserve.