ADHD News & Research

DHA Improves Adolescent Attention: Study on Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Consumption of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) was associated with greater attention among adolescents in a new study of omega-3 fatty acids. The findings could help shape nutrition recommendations for developing ADHD brains.

October 20, 2022

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) — both omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids — may improve attention performance and impulsivity in healthy adolescents, according to a recent study published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry1 DHA consumption was associated with selective and sustained attention and executive conflict response.

Researchers examined the associations between DHA, ALA, and attention function in 332 healthy Spanish adolescents aged 11 to 16 with equal gender distribution. Using the Attention Network Test (ANT), the study found that dietary DHA played a positive role in attention performance. Levels of DHA in red blood cells (RBC) were significantly higher in participants who consumed four or more weekly servings of fatty fish compared to lower consumption.

Adolescents with higher levels of RBC DHA exhibited lower hit reaction time (HRT), lower hit reaction time-standard error (HRT-SE), and lower stimuli conflict in attention tasks compared to the lowest DHA tertile. Lower attention scores indicated greater selective, sustained, and executive attention.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are critical for brain development and function, and their deficiency may have long-term functional consequences, such as memory impairment, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, or anxiety disorders,” researchers said. 1

Blood tests measured the proportion of DHA and ALA in red blood cells; computerized tests measured for attention scores; and questionnaires measured sociodemographic, clinical, and lifestyle data including consumption of fatty fish and nuts. Participants were grouped into three tertiles based on red blood cell proportions for both DHA and ALA.

“Our results concur with those from another observational study using a similar approach, adding evidence on the brain benefits of fatty fish consumption (the main source of DHA) in this population segment, to date mostly related to cognitive performance.”

Researchers did not observe an association between ALA and self-reported consumption of nuts, which are known to be a source of this omega-3. Consumption of nuts, therefore, did not contribute to attention scores. Participants with higher levels of ALA exhibited longer reaction times, but a positive relationship was found with impulsivity. Increasing levels of ALA across tertiles resulted in lower impulsivity response.

“This result might be of great clinical relevance, since impulsivity is known to be a key feature of several psychiatric disorders (i.e. ADHD, personality and substance abuse disorders, etc.).”

The current cross-sectional study relied on baseline data from the Walnuts Smart Snack Dietary Intervention Trial conducted in Barcelona, Spain, between 2015 and 2016. Most of the research available on DHA and attention is focused on adolescents with ADHD or children age 10 and younger. Limited data exists on ALA, which is recognized for its marginal conversion to DHA.

“This research is warranted to help better shape basic dietary recommendations for the adolescent population to ensure an optimal dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake for a healthy brain development.”

“Future intervention studies are needed to determine the causality of these associations and to better shape dietary recommendations for brain health during the adolescence period.”

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1Pinar-Martí, A., Fernández-Barrés, S., Gignac, F. et al. Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acids and attention scores in healthy adolescents. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry (2022).