Small Trial of Omega Fatty Acid Supplementation in Toddlers Born Preterm Points to Possible Therapeutic Intervention

March 1, 2018
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Researchers show that supplementation of omega fatty acids may improve symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder in toddlers who were born very preterm.

Researchers from Nationwide Children’s Hospital have shown that omega fatty acid supplements may improve autism spectrum disorder symptoms in toddlers who were born very preterm (<29 weeks gestation). The study was published in The Journal of Nutrition.

“The trial had two goals. First, we wanted to confirm the feasibility of a large study of toddlers born very preterm and exhibiting symptoms often seen with ASD. Second, we wanted to see what the effects of omega fatty acids would be on parent-reported ASD symptoms and related behaviors,” says Sarah Keim, PhD, lead author on the study and principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health in The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s.

Dr. Keim and her team conducted a 90-day randomized, fully blinded, and placebo-controlled trial of 31 children aged 18 to 36 months, who were born at or less than 29 weeks gestation. One group of children took a daily supplement including 338 mg eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), 225 mg docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and 83 mg gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). The other group took canola oil (124 mg palmitic acid, 39 mg stearic acid, 513 mg linoleic acid, 225 mg alpha-linoleic acid, 1346 mg oleic acid). Of the 31 children in the randomized trial, 28 had complete outcome data.

The group that took the daily omega fatty acid supplement exhibited a greater reduction in ASD symptoms than those who took the placebo, according to ratings provided by the children’s parents. The physicians used parent-reported results of the Brief Infant Toddler Social Emotional Assessment ASD scale to measure symptoms.

“We found clinically significant improvements in ASD symptoms in the treatment group, although the benefits were confined to one measure we used,” explains Dr. Keim. “We need to do a larger trial to further understand the potential impacts on a larger group of children.”

The researchers suggest that observed benefits of omega fatty acid supplementation could be due to the role of these nutrients in inflammatory processes. ASD is generally considered a neuroinflammatory condition, and influencing inflammation through nutritional supplementation could improve behaviors in children with ASD symptoms.

Researchers hope that giving omega fatty acids to children early, when they first show symptoms and the brain is still actively developing, may help them long-term.

“Currently, no medications are available to help children born prematurely with the developmental delays and behavior problems they often experience. For very young children, the medications that physicians sometimes try tend to have many side effects. And we don’t know what effect those medications have on brains that are still developing,” says Dr. Keim. “If using omega fatty acid supplementation helps, it would have a really huge impact for these kids.”

Dr. Keim and her team plan to expand the work in a full-scale trial in the future. And they recently received a new grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of omega fatty acid supplements in children aged 2-6 years who have ASD.



Keim SA, Gracious B, Boone KM, Klebanoff MA, Rogers LK, Rausch J, Coury DL, Sheppard KW, Husk J, Rhoda DA. Omega-3 and -6 fatty acid supplementation may reduce autism symptoms based on parent report in preterm toddlers. The Journal of Nutrition. 2018 Feb 1;148(2):227-235.


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