Omega-3 fatty acids are known to be beneficial to one’s health. Now, a new study has reported that the substances may prevent the development of full-blown schizophrenia in susceptible individuals. The findings were published on August 11 in the journal Nature Communications by researchers at the Medical University of Vienna, in Vienna, Austria.
The study authors note that schizophrenia is a devastating psychiatric disorder characterized by delusions, hallucinations and cognitive problems. The disease usually develops during adolescence or early adulthood, and the onset may be abrupt or insidious. However, in the majority of individuals, the symptoms develop slowly and gradually. Early treatment can result in a better outcome; however, the current treatments for the disease are focused on control rather than cure.
During the past two decades, scientists and clinicians have become increasingly interested in detecting and intervening in individuals who exhibit the early symptoms of schizophrenia. These individuals are referred to as having an “at-risk mental state”. In addition, “ultrahigh risk’ criteria have been established to identify young people with this syndrome, which is associated with a very high risk of developing psychosis. The authors explain that a recent meta-analysis of 2,502 at-risk individuals found that the cumulative rate of transition to psychosis increased over time, with 18%, 22%, 29% and 36% developing a psychotic disorder by 6 months, 1, 2 and 3 years, respectively7. These percentages are consistent with evidence that some at-risk individuals develop psychosis after the first 24 months following the appearance of the initial symptoms, when the risk of transition is thought to be the greatest.
Individuals with schizophrenia often have high levels of inflammatory substances in their body, but low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. Therefore, the researchers theorized that schizophrenia is partly due to brain inflammation. They examined whether providing omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil, could help prevent inflammation; thus, preventing the development of schizophrenia.
The study group comprised 81 teens and young adults (age range: 13 to 25) who were at high risk of developing full-blown psychosis within a year. The subjects all had some of the earliest symptoms of schizophrenia. Some were hearing voices or hallucinating; however, these symptoms lasted only a few days. Others were fearful that someone was trying to hurt them, but these feelings were transient. The researchers note that approximately 30% of individuals who experience the aforementioned symptoms will progress to full-blown schizophrenia or psychosis.
Half of the study group received an omega-3-rich fish oil supplement for 12 weeks; the other half received a placebo that had a fish oil taste. The subjects were followed-up for seven years. The investigators found that only 10% of the subjects who received the fish oil supplement developed schizophrenia, compared to 40% of those in the control group. In addition, the supplements appeared to prevent the subjects from developing psychosis for several years after they stopped taking them. The researchers could not determine the reason why the omega-3 supplement decreased the risk of developing schizophrenia; however, they theorized that the substances interrupted the cascade of inflammatory chemicals at just the right stage of the disease.