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Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Reduce Hyperactivity in Children with Autism?

Cheryl Cohen
Online Community Director
Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date Published: 
June 5, 2014

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore have published a study in the June 2014 edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry that addresses two questions:

  • Do Omega-3 fatty acids reduce hyperactivity in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as suggested by previous studies?
  • Is it possible to test the efficacy of low-risk therapies via the Internet in order to reduce the time and costs involved?

How did the study work?

To answer these questions, the researchers conducted an Internet-based randomized controlled trial (IB-RCT). Participants were recruited from IAN’s research registry and IAN’s innovative technology was used to administer the trial. Though most of the steps were automated, a researcher was always available to answer questions or address any problems. The researchers recruited 57 children between the ages of 5 and 8 and randomly assigned them to a treatment group that received pudding packets containing an orange-flavored gel with Omega-3 fatty acids and a control group that received similar packets containing safflower oil instead of the Omega-3 fatty acids. The young study participants took the gel for six weeks and their parents and teachers completed standardized forms that measured any behavior changes. The study was double-blinded, meaning that nobody, including the researchers, knew which children had taken the gel containing the Omega-3 fatty acids or the safflower oil placebo.

And the Verdict Is...

The researchers found that the group of participants who received the Omega-3 fatty acids showed a greater reduction in hyperactivity compared to the group who took the safflower oil-based gel. However, the difference between the two groups was not large enough (not statistically significant) to draw any conclusions. Further studies need to be done with larger numbers of participants in order to determine if Omega-3 fatty acids do indeed reduce hyperactivity in children with ASD.

The researchers did conclude that using the Internet to conduct randomized controlled trails is a promising technique that could lower the cost and the time it takes to test the efficacy of therapies. One added benefit -- this type of trial may make it easier for families to participate in autism research and allow more people to contribute.

Special Thanks to the Participants and Funders

We’d like to thank the IAN families and teachers who took the time and effort to participate in this study, especially all of the children who “took their medicine.”

This work was supported by a grant from the Simons Foundation (SFARI) and by the National Center for Research Resources and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health.

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Additional Resources: 

To learn more, you can access the article posted online on the website of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (free for journal subscribers) and an abstract of the article.

Learn more about randomized controlled trials.

References: 

Bent S., Hendren R.L., Zandi T., Law K., Choi J.E., Widjaja F., Kalb L., Nestle J., Law P. (2014, June). Internet-based, randomized, controlled trial of omega-3 fatty acids for hyperactivity in autism. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 53(6):658-66.