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Researchers hope fish oil can curb antisocial behavior

A University of Pennsylvania professor who studies psychopaths has found hope for improving human behavior in a surprising place: fish oil.

Fish oil pills.
Fish oil pills.Read moreiStock

A University of Pennsylvania professor who studies psychopaths has found hope for improving human behavior in a surprising place: fish oil.

A new study led by Adrian Raine, a psychologist in Penn's criminology department, found giving children a fruit drink mixed with omega-3 fatty acids - a key ingredient in fish oil - improved their behavior.

Strangely, the behavior of parents also improved, even though they weren't taking the supplements. More on that later.

Raine's ultimate goal is ambitious: to reduce crime. He has a long-standing interest in antisocial people - those who lack normal empathy and guilt. It is clear, he said, that their brains look and function differently. The question is whether interventions in childhood can get people on a better track.

This study, published online recently in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, involved 200 children with a normal range of behavior on Mauritius, an island off Africa's southeast coast.

Raine led a bigger study that added cognitive behavioral therapy to the mix with Philadelphia children who had antisocial or aggressive behavior. The data from that one are still being analyzed.

The Mauritius study was randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled. Half of the 8- to 16-year-old children were given the supplement, a product called Smartfish produced in Norway, that contained 1 gram (1,000 mg) of omega-3. The other half got a similar drink without omega-3. (Smartfish is not yet available in the United States.)

Before and after the treatment, the children and their parents were asked to evaluate externalizing behavior - aggressive, antisocial acts - and internalizing behavior - anxiety or depression.

The parents reported a 42 percent reduction in externalizing behavior and a 68 percent drop in internalizing behavior in children who got the supplement, compared with the placebo.

The treated youngsters reported a 59 percent drop in reactive aggression (you hit me and I hit back) and a 50 percent reduction in aggression they started. They didn't think they were less depressed or anxious.

The study did not look at whether the changes were bigger or smaller in children who started out with the worst behavior problems. Future criminals tend to have been particularly bad apples in childhood, Raine said.

The study found the parents of treated children also got less aggressive. It attributed 61 percent of the improvement in the children to improvement in the parents.

Why that happened is not clear, but Raine's best guess would not surprise most parents. "It's plausible that, if the kid is easier to deal with, then there's less stress on the parent, and, with less stress, the parent may chill out more," he said.

Another possibility is that the parents raided their children's Smartfish, Raine said, but blood tests showed the youngsters' omega-3 levels rose.

The Mauritius study needs replication, he said.

Why would omega-3 work at all?

This takes us back to Raine's interest in the biological basis of behavior. Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for brain function, he said. They make up 30 percent of the cell membrane surrounding neurons and are important for the connections between the cells, as well.

In addition, he said, poor nutrition during pregnancy and in childhood are associated with behavior problems in children and adults. Two trials, one in England and another in the Netherlands, found a reduction in antisocial behavior of about 35 percent in young prisoners after omega-3 supplementation.

Raine knows it's a touchy subject, but he's hoping people will be open to the idea of a biological solution to what may be partly a biological problem.

"We can either turn a blind eye to biological interventions . . . or we can do something," he said.

215-854-4944 @StaceyABurling