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Learning Disabilities and Fatty Acids

by David Taylor(more info)

listed in essential fatty acids, originally published in issue 82 - November 2002


There are currently a lot of articles in the media linking fatty acids to learning. "Could a food supplement really boost your child's brain power?" posits one such article and "Are children what they don't eat?" asks another. The source of this latest focus is a single study, which has recently taken place right in my own back yard, Durham.

The study, the first controlled trial of its kind, is headed by Durham Specialist Senior Educational Psychologist Dr Madeline Portwood and run as a collaborative research project with Dr Alex Richardson, an Oxford-based neuroscientist. A supplement containing a high-EPA marine oil and some evening primrose oil is being administered to a group of dyspraxic (Dyspraxia is a difficulty with thinking out, planning and carrying out sensory/motor tasks) schoolchildren in a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial.

Sounds great. I get really excited about fatty acids and have been banging on about the benefits of them for years. However, with a couple of fine dyspraxic specimens crashing about in my own house, I would like to cut to the chase. So, what's the research evidence behind this study? What fatty acids work best? Does it work for all dyspraxics? How much should you give and where do you get if from? Also, I would like to know what the preliminary findings of this study are and where and when will the final results be published?

Evidence Linking Fatty Acids to Dyspraxia

It all starts with formula milk. Comparisons of young children fed on breast or formula milk in the 1980s and the Lucas report in 1990[1,2] suggested that differences in ability were due to the presence of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, in particular docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in breast milk. Peter Willats and colleagues at the University of Dundee later found that a combination of omega-6 and 0mega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) in a specific ratio appears to directly affect the outcomes for young children.[3] Lastly, fatty acid abnormalities have been found in ADHD and also in dyslexia.

Major Essential Fatty Acids

Two fatty acids play a major role in brain and eye structure: (AA – omega-6 series; and DHA – omega-3 series). Two others (EPA – omega-3 series and DGLA – omega-6 series) play a more minor role but are still crucial for normal brain function. The EFAs we really need in our diet, which cannot be synthesized by our bodies, are linoleic acid (omega-6 series) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3 series).

Evening primrose oil is perhaps the best known source of omega-6 fatty acids. It works on such things as dry skin and allergies but seems to give only marginal benefits when used alone.

The other, omega-3 fatty acid can be obtained from oily fish. In early life plenty of DHA is needed for brain building but it is EPA which is more effective in reducing problems with attention, perception and memory, those things that this study is hoping to address.

Getting the balance right is also important. Crucially, the ratio of EPA to DHA is the key factor and a ratio of 24:7 should be sought.

We should also be looking for a product with a bit of vitamin E as well. Vitamin E is usually included in fatty acid supplements as an antioxidant to protect the fatty acids from breakdown.

As a note of caution though, if you get your EFAs from cod-liver oil supplements, you need to be aware that they may also contain high levels of dioxins and significant levels of vitamin A, too much of which can be harmful.

Does It Work For All Dyspraxic People?

No. What we are looking at here is developmental problems that can be addressed in some way by dietary intervention. Some people may be deficient in HUFA (highly unsaturated fatty acids) not simply due to diet but because they fail to metabolise fatty acids properly.

One other important aspect of the Durham study is the use of a breathalyzer-like device to take exhalation samples that can be analysed to give an indication of metabolism problems.

What is the Correct Dosage?

If you want to follow the Durham study, six small capsules a day for the first 12 weeks, supplying omega-3 HUFA (EPA, DHA) and the omega-6 HUFA (GLA and AA) as well as vitamin E (alpha-tocopheral). Although the amount will vary between individuals, it can take three months or more to obtain maximum benefit due to the slow turnover of these fatty acids in the brain. This is not medication and so does not work rapidly. However, for an appropriate high initial dose, you should be looking for about 500 mg of EPA and 50 mg GLA per day (which converts easily to DGLA and AA).

Where Can I Get It?

The Durham study is using the supplement eye-q from Equazen, a balanced formula, which comes in capsule and liquid form (our 11 year old dyspraxic son Harry takes it in liquid form and it tastes of lemon). Whatever supply you use, ensure it is of good quality. You get nothing for free and some products may be not only ineffective but could contain harmful residues from environmental pollution or extraction processes. Any reputable supplier will be able to provide information on the source of their oils and how their product is manufactured.

Preliminary Findings of the Durham Study

Halfway through the study a significant number of children are responding very positively. Reading scores are up; halfway through the trial they were up between two and three years in some cases. There have also been improvements in attentiveness, concentration and self-esteem. There have also been dramatic improvements in skin condition with some individuals. As I write this article (July 2002) I am told that preliminary results will be available in September and we should keep our eyes out for The British Medical Journal or Nature once the study has been peer-reviewed.


1. Lucas A et al. Early diet in pre-term babies and developmental status in infancy. Archives of Disease in Childhood 64: 1578. 1989.
2. Lucas A et al. Breast milk and subsequent intelligence quotient in children born prematurely. Lancet 339: 261-4. 1992.
3. Willats P, Forsyth J, DiModugno M et al. Effect of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in infant formula on problem solving at 10 months of age. Lancet 352: 688-691. 2001.


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About David Taylor

David Taylor is a psychologist with a background in psychopharmacology and development. From working with children he developed an interest in the effects of environmental factors, particularly the effects of nutrition, upon mental and physical health. He is co-director of Optimum Nutrition North East in Durham City, with his wife Sandra, a health psychologist. They take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing focussing upon nutrition, stress and lifestyle. For more information about Optimum Nutrition North East and the services and products available Tel: 0191 3849088; E:; W:

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