High doses of omega-3 fatty acids offer no benefit in young children with autism

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autismA six-month study out of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital revealed that children with autism who consumed omega-3 fatty acids did not improve their core symptoms, which challenges current thinking on a widely-used alternative therapy for autism. This study does not support a common belief that previously connected the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids with an improvement in core autism symptoms.

Led by Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou, Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Translational Therapeutics in ASD and Senior Clinician Scientist in the Bloorview Research Institute, study findings indicate that while the intake of omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial from a nutritional standpoint, the consumption of a much higher dose – typically administered to children with autism and often advocated as an autism-specific supplementation – did not enable skill acquisition or improvement in social functioning.

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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects brain development, and is defined by challenges in social communication and repetitive behaviour. Most recent estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) note that 1 in every 68 children are born with ASD. As a result, according to the Autism Society of Canada, an estimated 515,000 Canadians are living with ASD. ASD becomes apparent in early childhood.

Treatments for ASD that target core symptoms are limited, and alternative and complementary therapies for children with ASD are often explored. Autism has many causes, but no individual cause explains why children and adults have the disorder. Investigations are underway to improve treatments and narrow in on which treatments will work for whom. Complementary therapies are sometimes used even in the absence of good quality data to support them.

“It is critical that we evaluate such therapies as our practice should be guided by evidence,” says Dr. Anagnostou, on the subject of using therapies in advance of them being studied.

The study, ‘A randomized, placebo controlled trial of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of young children with autism’ was published in Molecular Autism in March 2015. This study was a collaboration between the Bloorview Research Institute at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, and the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Anagnostou is also the co-editor of a new book called Clinicians Manual on Autism Spectrum Disorder (published by Springer, UK) alongside Dr. Jessica Brian, Clinician Investigator, Psychologist and co-lead of the Autism Research Centre in the Bloorview Research Institute.

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Clinicians Manual on Autism Spectrum Disorder is a clinical handbook that provides an overview of best-practices in ASD care, and is designed to support clinicians with research-based guidance in the diagnosis, treatment, and long-term management of autism, including behavioural therapies, current clinical trials, and emerging pharmaceutical treatments. The manual also includes a chapter on person-centred care for individuals with ASD and their families.

“ASD research is providing unique insights to help clinicians better understand and manage symptoms of autism in their patients,” says Dr. Brian. “The handbook is a clinically-focused tool that will support clinicians with diagnosing and managing autism, based on the latest research and best practices.”