Systematic review finds limited evidence for the use of omega-3 fatty acids in autism spectrum disorders


Previous research has highlighted that people with autism spectrum disorders may be deficit in omega-3 fatty acids and that taking supplements may help to improve the symptoms of the condition.

This new Cochrane systematic review set out to review the efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids for improving core features of autism spectrum disorder (e.g. social interaction, communication, stereotypies and associated symptoms).

The reviewers carried out a reliable Cochrane literature search, but only found two randomised controlled trials of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation compared to placebo in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. The trials were both small pilot studies, with a total of 40 children (37 male). Patients were given the supplementation over 6 to 12 weeks.

Here’s what they found:

  • No statistically significant improvements were observed for social interaction, communication, stereotypy or hyperactivity
  • The largest treatment effect was reported for hyperactivity and in one study changes in hyperactivity were correlated with changes in certain fatty acids levels
  • No serious side effects were reported for the omega-3 treatment

These small pilot studies do not provide a definitive answer about the effectiveness of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation, but they do prepare the way for larger rigorous studies (some of which are already complete).

Around 30% of children with autism spectrum disorders take omega-3 fatty acids, so the safety and efficacy of these supplements needs to be determined.

James S, Montgomery P, Williams K. Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD007992. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD007992.pub2.

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Andre Tomlin

André Tomlin is an Information Scientist with 20 years experience working in evidence-based healthcare. He's worked in the NHS, for Oxford University and since 2002 as Managing Director of Minervation Ltd, a consultancy company who do clever digital stuff for charities, universities and the public sector. Most recently André has been the driving force behind the Mental Elf and the National Elf Service; an innovative digital platform that helps professionals keep up to date with simple, clear and engaging summaries of evidence-based research. André is a Trustee at the Centre for Mental Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London Division of Psychiatry. He lives in Bristol, surrounded by dogs, elflings and lots of woodland!

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