Omega-3 affects IQ and behavior

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Another research group is reporting a correlation between consumption of omega-3 PUFAs during pregnancy and the IQ of children.

Looking at the effects of omega-3 intake on 9,000 mothers and their children, the team found mothers with the lowest intake of the essential fatty acid had children with a verbal IQ six points lower than the average.

A new finding, as far as I know, is that low omega-3 intake is also correlated with antisocial behavior:

Low intake of the crucial fatty acid also appeared to lead to more problems of social interactions – such as an inability to make friends. Research leader Dr Joseph Hibbeln said “frightening data” showed 14% of 17-year-olds whose mother had eaten small quantities of Omega -3 during pregnancy demonstrated this sort of behaviour. This compared with 8% of those born to the group with the highest intake, he said.

I note and so does the economist that this study is looking at correlation, and so the possibility of confounding is a problem. In particular, I can easily imaging that omega-3 intake is correlated with maternal IQ, and thus some or all of the omega-3 intake to IQ correlation could be mediated by genetic transmission of IQ. However, I do know of one supplementation study with good internal controls.

Update: BBC News story


  1. This kind of research is so needle-in-the-haystack empirical. Cabbages prevent cancer, squash prevents cancer, coffee prevents cancer, etc., etc. Every once in awhile there’s a vivid correlation (tobacco causes cancer) and even then there’s an argument about it. 
    “Fish is brain food”. Old cliche.

  2. There was a double blind study in a Brittish prison where some prisoners got a broad vitamin, mineral, and essential fatty acid supplement, and some got a placebo. The treatment group had much lower rates of disciplinary infractions. 
    The New Scientist article is called “Let them eat vitamins” Registration required 

  3. Oops, that article was an editorial. THe real article, also for pay: 
    Full of Goodness

  4. John, I don’t know the actual history of this research field, but you can arrive at the hypothesis that omega-3 is good for the brain from the observation that breast milk is better for IQ than infant formulas that lack omega-3.

  5. Is it true that modern infant formulas lack omega-3 fatty acids? 
    Could rikurzhen cite the source or provide a link to the article he read about Joseph Hibbeln’s new paper?

  6. I really wasn’t specifically attacking this article, but the whole class of epedimiological articles of this type, especially as they are reported in the popular media.

  7. Fryera, you can buy premium formulas with added omega-3 fats, so I assume the other formulas lack them. 
    a quick google search brought up this page

  8. What is the source of the study involving 9000 mothers and children? 
    Could rikurzhen cite the source or provide a link to the article he read about Joseph Hibbeln’s new paper?

  9. sorry, i forgot to link the story. i updated the entry. there’s also a longer discussion in the economist.

  10. Economist link: