Increased dietary intake of algal DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in school-aged children with low reading levels demonstrated significant improvements in reading performance and behavior, according to a new clinical study conducted at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Lead researchers of the study indicated that DHA supplementation appears to be an effective way to improve reading in healthy but underperforming children from mainstream schools.
“Poor reading skills as a child impact all learning and can lead to a host of problems in adulthood,” said lead investigator Alex Richardson, Ph.D., senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and director of Food and Behavior (FAB) Research. “The DHA Oxford Learning and Behavior (DOLAB) trial showed that taking daily algal DHA supplements improved reading performance for the worst readers, and helped these children catch up with their peer group.”
The study results were published in the peer-reviewed PLoS ONE journal on September 6 at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0043909. The DOLAB trial, an independent study initiated at the University of Oxford, was funded by a grant from DSM Nutritional Products, and DSM’s algal DHA omega-3 oil was used as the active treatment for the intervention.
The DOLAB Trial
The DOLAB Trial was a parallel group, fixed-dose, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial designed to assess whether an increased dietary intake of DHA omega-3 had benefits on reading performance, working memory and behavior in healthy school-aged children. The study population included 362 healthy children aged 7 – 9 years recruited from mainstream state schools in Oxfordshire, U.K. underperforming in literacy skills (<33rd percentile on standardized reading test) but with other abilities within the normal range. The study population was not taking medications for ADHD.
The active treatment intervention was a fixed dose of 600 mg DHA (from algal oil), delivered in 3 x 500 mg capsules/day, each providing 200 mg DHA. The placebo treatment was 3 x 500 mg capsules/day containing corn/soybean oil placebo, matched with active treatment for taste and color. Duration of treatment was 16 weeks with delivery of capsules via schools and parents at other times.
Although no significant treatment effect was observed in the overall population of the lower 33th percentile, the study did find significant improvement in reading performance among the subgroups of children who were underperforming in literacy skills, based on the British Ability Scales (p=.04 among students in the lowest 20th percentile of reading and p<.01 in the lowest 10th percentile of readers). Improvement in reading in these poorer readers was 20 percent and nearly 50 percent greater, respectively, than would normally be expected, helping these children to catch up with their peer group.
In the subgroup of 224 children with initial reading in the lowest 20th percentile, algal DHA led to an additional 0.8 months reading age gain compared with the placebo. In the subgroup of 105 children initially reading in the lowest 10th percentile, the additional reading age gain from algal DHA treatment verses placebo was 1.9 months. In general, children’s reading ages typically increase by four months over a 16-week period.
In addition to the promising results found in the subgroups, an overall effect was found versus placebo in improved parent-reported behavior (ADHD-type symptoms). Analysis showed significant effects of algal DHA over placebo on eight of the 14 scales assessing a range of ADHD-type symptoms. For example, children in the treatment group had fewer oppositional symptoms (p=0.01) and less hyperactivity (p=0.02), as reported by their parents.
Following the positive results found in the subgroup populations, a follow-on study is currently underway at the University of Oxford to explore a larger sample size of children who are underperforming (<20th percentile) in reading performance.
U.S. children struggle with reading
The study results come at a time when many school-aged children lack sufficient reading skills. According to the most recent report card by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), students in the United States continue to struggle with reading, the most fundamental educational skill. More than a third of all fourth-grade public school students cannot read at even the most basic level and another third only reach the level of proficient.
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(Note: DSM Nutritional Products provided the funding for the study but had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. This was an independent study that was published in the peer-reviewed PLoS ONE journal on September 6th, 2012).
The research was led by Dr. Alex Richardson, PhD, senior research fellow at University of Oxford & Director of Food & Behavior (FAB) Research and Dr. Paul Montgomery Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention, University of Oxford and Director of FAB Research.