Children with extreme aggression who began taking omega-3, vitamins, and mineral supplements experienced a short-term reduction in this problem behavior, especially its more impulsive, emotional form, according to a new study at the University of Pennsylvania involving preteens with a violent history.
Dr. Adrian Raine, the Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology, Psychology and Psychiatry, has spent his career studying how the brain’s biological functioning affects antisocial behavior. His research focuses on how to change the brain to modify these behaviors, whether it’s a more benign situation such as a child acting out or something more extreme, such as the case of a homicidal killer.
“How do you change the brain to make people better?” he asked. “How can we improve brain functioning to improve behavior?”
These questions formed the foundation for Raine’s previous work involving adolescents on the African island of Mauritius. In a randomized control trial, one group of children received omega-3 supplements for six months, the other didn’t. Those taking the fish oil saw a reduction in aggressive and antisocial behavior.
“That was my starting point,” he said. “I was really excited about the results we published there.”
Mauritius, however, is a tropical climate and a different culture from the United States, so Raine decided to test a new version of the study in Philadelphia, to aim for more broadly applicable outcomes.
He teamed up with Dr. Therese Richmond, the Andrea B. Laporte Professor of Nursing and associate dean for research and innovation, and several other Penn faculty, including Drs. Rose Cheney of the Perelman School of Medicine and Jill Portnoy of the Criminology Department.
The Philadelphia study placed 290 preteens (11-12 years old) with a history of violence into four groups: The first group received omega-3 in the form of juice, as well as multivitamins and calcium for three months.
For that same duration, a second group participated in cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which included meeting weekly for an hour, with time split between the child, the parent, and with both together.
“Sessions focused on the links between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and also practicing alternative actions the children could take to deal with difficult situations rather than to emotionally react to something,” said Richmond, who supervised the clinical trial.
“It’s helping the child build a toolbox of ways to interact with others. For example, if I’m angry, how might I cope with anger other than physically striking out?” All participants got homework, too.
The third group took the supplements and participated in CBT, and a fourth group was given resources and information targeted at reducing aggressive behavior. Blood samples were taken at the beginning and end of the experiment to measure omega-3 levels in each child.
“Immediately after three months of the nutritional intervention rich in omega-3s, we found a decrease in the children’s reporting of their aggressive behavior,” Richmond said. The team also followed up three and six months later.
At the first check-in, preteens receiving the combination of CBT and omega-3s reported less aggression than the control group and the therapy-only group. By the last check-in, however, any positive effects had disappeared.
It is still unknown whether continued use of omega-3s would result in a long-term reduction in antisocial behavior.
There were some minor limitations to the study. First, the self-reporting by children and the reports of their parents didn’t line up. For example, while the 11- and 12-year-olds in the omega-3 and CBT-supplement groups noted fewer aggressive behaviors, their parents said their behaviors hadn’t changed. Also, some participants dropped out before the study was over.
Despite these challenges, the researchers said the findings offer some important insights.
“No matter what program you use, could adding omega-3s to your treatment help?” Raine asked. “This suggests it could.”
And while the findings answered some questions, they also created new ones, which returns to a larger point regarding the mind-behavior connection: It’s complicated.
“We can’t oversimplify the complexity of antisocial behavior. There are many causes,” Raine said. “It’s not just the brain. Is it a piece of the jigsaw puzzle? I think it is.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Source: University of Pennsylvania