CINCINNATI—Fish oil, already known for its heart-healthy benefits, is attracting attention for its potential to prevent mental illness as well.
Researchers in Austria recently earned headlines for a study showing that fish oil pills show promise in preventing schizophrenia in young people. And at the University of Cincinnati (UC), researchers in the psychiatry department are studying the potential of omega-3 fatty acids, which occur naturally in fish oil, to prevent bipolar disorder from developing in children.
“There’s some evidence that children of parents with bipolar disorder may have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their brains,” says Melissa DelBello, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics and vice chair for clinical research in the psychiatry department.
Omega-3 oils are fatty acids found in cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, trout, tuna, mackerel, anchovies and sardines. Other sources include flax and pumpkin seeds and walnuts. Many people take fish oil as a supplement via pills that are available over the counter.
The omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is crucial to the brain, with low DHA levels linked to depression, schizophrenia, memory loss and a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) has been linked to behavior and mood, with studies showing lower levels of EPA in depressed patients.
“More and more, people believe that they should take omega-3 to protect their brains, just like they have been to protect their hearts,” DelBello says.
For the study of omega-3 fatty acids and prevention of bipolar disorder in children, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), DelBello is recruiting children and adolescents who have extreme moodiness or depression as well as children and adolescents who have a parent with bipolar disorder. Children and parents will be interviewed and undergo non-invasive brain scans and neurocognitive testing with puzzles and games. If they qualify for the study, children will be given an omega-3 supplement and their progress will be monitored over time. (If not, they can be treated with other medications, monitored or both.)
DelBello says parents of children and adolescents who might be candidates for research studies at UC on bipolar and other mood disorders can obtain more information by calling Holly Bryan at (513) 558-3191.