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Can Fish Oil Stop Schizophrenia?

“Fish oil could prevent schizophrenia.” You have probably seen the headlines in the past weeks. This is the sort of news we all dream of—a way to prevent a serious illness before it develops, using a really safe treatment. The results from the study conducted in Vienna, Austria, are truly promising, but cautious optimism is still the prevailing mood, even among the researchers who did the work.

Let’s unpack the story …

The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil have been discussed as a possible treatment for schizophrenia since at least the 1990s, though research has not shown that fish oil supplementation has any effect on people already living with schizophrenia.

However, the Vienna study, led by Paul Amminger of the University of Melbourne in Australia, suggests that fish oil can protect against the development of full-blown psychosis when taken by young people showing early symptoms that could develop into schizophrenia or another psychotic illness. The current study is actually a follow-up of a small study (81 participants) originally published in 2010, which had very promising early results: 12 months after having taken fish oil or a placebo for 12 weeks, 2 people from the group who took fish oil developed psychosis, whereas 11 from the group taking a placebo did. (Read more at the Schizophrenia Research Forum.) The recently-published follow-up study looked at the same group seven years later and found that another 2 people from the fish oil group (4 people in total during the full study) had developed psychosis, whereas another 5 from the group taking a placebo had (16 of the original group).

Paul Amminger, University of Melbourne

Dr. Paul Amminger, of the University of Melbourne, led the study.

It’s worth mentioning that many of the people who did not develop a psychotic illness nevertheless ended up with some psychiatric disorder, though here again, there was an advantage for the group that had received fish oil.

Those are pretty impressive numbers—the difference seems striking. But again, the total number of participants in the study is very small. In such a small group, other factors, even statistical chance, could account for these results. That’s why it’s so important to repeat a study like this in a much larger group of people and see if the results are similar. Disappointingly, the preliminary results of a larger follow-up study by Amminger and his colleagues, presented at a conference earlier this year, do not show an advantage for fish oil. We’ll have to wait for the final results to be published. In addition, a multi-center, long-term study (funded by NIMH) of fish oil to prevent schizophrenia is nearing its end, and the results of this large study will tell us even more.

Unfortunately, it’s too early to recommend fish oil at this point to prevent psychosis. It may not hurt to take it, but you have to make sure you’re buying the high-quality stuff, and in any case, there is no way to know if you are getting the right amounts of the kind of fatty acids used in the study.

One element of this type of research that needs to continue in any case is the focus on finding safe ways to intervene in the still-developing brain of an adolescent or young adult to prevent a psychotic disorder that is just starting to develop. This is a burgeoning area of research—working with young people in the “prodromal” phase (showing early symptoms) to see what is changing in their brains and mental processes, and looking for interventions that can promote the healthy development of the brain.

What this research points out is that most mental illnesses, just like less complex disorders such as heart disease or cancer, are not likely to be solved by simple nutritional supplements alone. It may turn out that some cases of schizophrenia can be headed off with fish oil—we would all celebrate that—but even then there would many people who develop schizophrenia or other psychiatric disorders. Our best bet for having treatments or preventives for mental illness is to double down on research into the brain and how it develops.

More Reading

Longer-term outcome in the prevention of psychotic disorders by the Vienna omega-3 study

Omega-3 fish oils tested as preventative approach to schizophnrenia, with positive results (News and background of the first study)

 (News and background of the recent study)

Interview with Dr. Patrick McGorry (Read or listen to this interview discussing the most recent data on fish oil and schizophrenia, which are less promising)

 

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