Nicky Blackburn
July 9, 2006, Updated September 13, 2012

Omega-3, a fatty acid found in fish oil, has been found to help children diagnosed with clinical depression.Treatment with omega-3 fatty acids could benefit children suffering from clinical depression, according to a pilot study conducted in Israel.

Today in the US, some 3.4 million Americans under the age of 18 have severe depression – one in every 33 children according to estimates, and one in every eight teens. Many of these go undiagnosed and untreated.

These rates are also rising significantly. In the last 14 years the number of American children and adolescents who are diagnosed with depression has risen steadily.

Prescribing drugs for children suffering from depression is problematic, however, due to side effects, making the results of the study all the more important to parents and doctors alike.

Twenty Israeli children suffering from depression were involved in the double blind study, which took place at Ben Gurion University in the Negev.

Half of the children, aged between eight and 12 years old, were given omega-3, a fatty acid found in fish oils, and the other half were given a placebo.

At the start of the study, standardized depression scores were used to assess the children, and these were continued throughout the 16-week trial. At the end of the trial, seven out of 10 children in the omega-3 group had a reduction in depression scores of more than 50 percent, while four children in the group achieved remission. None of the children in the placebo group saw results drop lower than 50 percent.

The omega-3 fatty acid supplement used in the study was a combination of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, which is commonly available as an over-the-counter preparation. The trial reported no serious side effects.

“We were extremely surprised by the results,” says Californian-born Dr. Haim Belmaker, Hoffer-Vickar Chair of Psychiatry at BGU, and assistant director of the Beersheva Mental Health Center, who led the trial.

“We approached the study with a lot of scepticism, and low expectations, but when we cracked the code the results were very clear. Nearly everyone who took omega-3 made significant strides towards recovery, while no one got better on the placebo,” he told ISRAEL21c.

These results, which were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry could have an impact on the way children suffering from depression are treated.

The main treatment for depression is a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs, which include Prozac, are being increasingly prescribed for children with depression, even for children as young as three years old.

SSRIs have many side effects, however. These include nausea, agitation, insomnia and eating problems, and have also been linked in a British study to an increased risk of suicide and dependency in children – an issue now under review by the US Food and Drug Administration.

In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that Prozac can stunt growth if administered to children over many years.

Lack of effective alternatives, however, has led the European Medicines Agency to announce recently that depressed children as young as eight years old could be given drugs like Prozac.

“The area of childhood depression receives a great deal of attention these days,” admits Belmaker. “Current treatments have many serious side effects and are not even very effective.”

This is the second trial that Belmaker has carried out into the effects of omega-3 on people suffering from depression. In an earlier study, he found depressed adults also saw a significant decrease in depression after taking the fish oil. Belmaker plans to continue working in this field, and plans additional trials to test the efficacy of omega-3 in treating depression.

Recently, Belmaker was elected president of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, a global association of psychiatrists, laboratory researchers and psychologists, with some 1,000 members in 57 countries. He is the first Israeli to take this position.

The organization promotes development of new medications for the treatment of mental and emotional disorders, and carries out scientific evaluation of existing treatments. It also consults with the World Health Organization.

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