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Omega-3 combats depression by: Nicky Blackburn

Medical research
Medical research

Treatment with omega-3 fatty acids could benefit children suffering from clinical depression, according to a pilot study conducted in Israel. Twenty children suffering from depression were involved in the double blind study, which took place at Ben Gurion University (BGU) in the Negev.

Half of the children, aged between eight and 12 years old, were given omega-3, a fatty acid found in fish oils, and the other half were given a placebo. At the start of the study, standardized depression scores were used to assess the children, and these were continued throughout the 16-week trial.

At the end of the trial, seven out of 10 children in the omega-3 group had a reduction in depression scores of more than 50 percent, while four children in the group achieved remission. None of the children in the placebo group saw results drop lower than 50 percent.

The omega-3 fatty acid supplement used in the study was a combination of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, which is commonly available as an over-the-counter preparation. The trial reported no serious side effects.

"We were extremely surprised by the results," says Dr. Haim Belmaker, professor of psychiatry at Ben Gurion University, and assistant director of the Beersheva Mental Health Centre, who led the trial. "We approached the study with a lot of scepticism, and low expectations, but when we cracked the code the results were very clear. Nearly everyone who took omega-3 made significant strides towards recovery, while no-one got better on the placebo."

These results, which were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, could have an impact on the way children suffering from depression are treated. Today in the UK, about one percent of children aged between five to 11, and three percent of teenagers aged between 11-18 are thought to suffer from depression every year a total of some 80,000 5-16 year olds.

Treatment for children suffering from depression, however, is problematic. The main treatment is a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI's). These drugs, which include Prozac, have many side effects including nausea, agitation, insomnia and eating problems, and have also been linked to an increased risk of suicide and dependency in children. In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that Prozac can stunt growth if administered to children over many years.

Lack of effective alternatives, however, has led the European Medicines Agency to announce recently that depressed children as young as eight years old could be given drugs like Prozac. "The area of childhood depression receives a great deal of attention these days," admits Belmaker. "Current treatments have many serious side effects and are not even very effective."

This is the second trial that Belmaker has carried out into the effects of omega-3 on people suffering from depression. In an earlier study, he found depressed adults also saw a significant decrease in depression after taking the fish oil.Belmaker plans to continue working in this field, and plans additional trials to test the efficacy of omega-3 in treating depression.

Recently, Belmaker who was born in California in the US and emigrated to Israel - was elected president of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, a global association of psychiatrists, laboratory researchers and psychologists, with some 1,000 members in 57 countries.  He is the first Israeli to take this position.

The organisation promotes development of new medications for the treatment of mental and emotional disorders, and carries out scientific evaluation of existing treatments. It also consults with the World Health Organisation.

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