sealPurdue News

June 1996

Deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids tied to ADHD in boys

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue University researchers have found that boys with low blood levels of essential omega-3 fatty acids, have a greater tendency to have problems with behavior, learning and health consistent with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or (ADHD).

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Some previous studies by other researchers have indicated that symptoms associated with a deficiency in fatty acids are exhibited to a greater extent in children with ADHD. Those symptoms include thirst, frequent urination and dry skin and hair. The Purdue researchers, however, were able to pinpoint omega-3s as the fatty acids that may be associated with the unique behavior problems in children with ADHD.

"There are two types of fatty acids that must be obtained from the foods we eat because the body cannot synthesize them," says John R. Burgess, assistant professor of foods and nutrition. "Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both essential to the body. However, evidence is accumulating that a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids may be tied to behavior problems, learning and health problems."

ADHD is the most common behavioral disorder in children, affecting between 3 percent and 5 percent of school-age youngsters. It's diagnosed more often in boys than girls. The cause of ADHD is unknown, but research suggests many factors may contribute to it, including biological and environmental elements.

Stimulant drugs such as Ritalin often are used to calm children with ADHD and are effective about 75 percent of the time. "With our research we are trying to find potential causes of ADHD so that nutritional treatments can be developed for some children with ADHD," Burgess says.

For this study, the researchers compared the fatty-acid levels in the blood of 96 boys, ages 6 to 12. Fifty-three of the boys had previously been identified as having ADHD, and 43 did not. Teachers and parents also were asked to rate the subjects on a scale used to assess childhood behavior problems. The parents also filled out a health questionnaire for possible symptoms associated with essential fatty acid deficiencies.

Approximately 40 percent of the boys with ADHD had a greater frequency of symptoms indicative of essential fatty-acid deficiency, as reported by their parents. Nine percent of the boys without ADHD had similar symptoms.

Burgess says boys with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids scored higher in the frequency of many behavioral problems. Children with lower omega-6 levels reported significantly more colds and health-related problems than those with higher levels, but they did not exhibit more behavioral problems.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and other seafood. Burgess says there are also small amounts of omega-3s in some polyunsaturated oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to the proper functioning of the central nervous system. He says the body doesn't need a great quantity of omega-3 fatty acids, and he speculates that in children who have low blood levels of omega-3s, their metabolism may be unable to adequately process the little bit that they need from the foods they eat.

"While all children with ADHD are not deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, we believe that this may be important for at least a subset of ADHD children," Burgess says. "However, at this point we don't know what the relationship is between omega-3 fatty acids and ADHD."

The study appeared in the April/May edition of the journal Physiology & Behavior.

Source: John Burgess, (765) 494-8239; Internet:
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; Internet:
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of the study in Physiology and Behavior and a color photo of a young boy holding up a fish are available from Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2096. Ask for the photo called Omega-3/Burgess.

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