Taking omega-3 supplements during pregnancy does not make children smarter

05 May 2014
Taking omega-3 supplements during pregnancy does not make children smarter

A major study led by Adelaide researchers has found that the use of omega-3 fatty acid or fish oil supplements during pregnancy does not improve cognitive outcomes in children.

In the biggest study of its kind in the world, researchers from the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and the University of Adelaide's Women's and Children's Health Research Institute (WCHRI) followed the development of more than 600 children to the age of four.

The results are published today in a special issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

"Despite a paucity of evidence, there are recommendations for pregnant women throughout the world to increase their intake of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to improve fetal brain development. Our research has been aimed at understanding whether or not those supplements are beneficial," says study leader Professor Maria Makrides, Healthy Mothers, Babies and Children Theme Leader with SAHMRI and Director of WCHRI at the University.

In the study, pregnant women received either DHA supplements or a placebo. The researchers initially found that average cognitive, language, and motor scores did not differ between these children at 18 months of age.

"For our follow-up study, we assessed outcomes at four years of age, a time point when any subtle effects on development should have emerged," Professor Makrides says.

"We found that measures of cognition, the ability to perform complex mental processing, language, and executive functioning – such as memory, reasoning and problem solving – did not differ significantly between the groups.

"Our research does not support prenatal DHA supplementation to enhance early childhood development. Given the amount of marketing that occurs around the use of fish oil supplements for brain development, these are significant findings," Professor Makrides says.

This study has been funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.