EFAs boost learning: “Landmark study”

Food supplements can improve the abilities of children with learning difficulties, a study has shown. The major trial into the effects of essential fatty acids (EFAs) on concentration and learning levels has produced extremely encouraging results and has boosted the hopes of scientists, teachers and parents alike.

The study involved 120 children between 6 and 11 years of age at 13 schools in County Durham, England. One child’s reading level reportedly improved by the equivalent of four years after only three months of taking the supplements. Lead researcher Dr Madelaine Portwood, an educational psychologist, called the trial a “landmark” study.


Like a growing number of researchers, Dr Portwood believes that deficiencies in fatty acids can cause serious learning difficulties. One study revealed that children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) appear to have lower levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a component of fish oil which is necessary for proper brain formation and function. Other studies have found a range of behavioural and neurological disorders—including depression, Alzheimer’s and dyslexia—linked to deficiencies of essential fatty acids like DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Many researchers blame the shortage of EFAs on the modern over-processed, nutrient-poor diet. They point to the relatively low rates of depression in countries like Taiwan and Japan, where fish consumption is much higher.


While the full results of Dr Portwood’s trial are due out soon, early analysis has shown a number of advances among some of the children, including those with disorders such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, autistic spectrum disorder and ADHD. In some cases, learning ability was increased by two years in a 12-week period.

According to Dr Portwood, “the children’s social skills seem to be improving because they are more confident. They are becoming more socially interactive and perhaps this increases the motivation to learn.”

One of the children’s teachers concurs with Portwood and says he too has noticed big changes.

“They are more able to concentrate on the lesson and are more involved in the creative process.”

Dr Portwood also reports that her own 10-year-old son has had a “marked improvement” since starting with the supplements.

“I wouldn’t give them to him if I did not feel they did him any benefit,” she said.

The supplements used in the study contained a blend of fish oil and evening primrose oil that provided EPA, DHA and gamma linolenic acid (GLA).

Sources: BBC News, May 13, 2002; The Pharmaceutical Journal, May 25, 2002; Pharmacol Res 1999 Sep;40(3):211-25