Food and Behaviour Research

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Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents

Gillies D, Sinn JKh, Lad SS, Leach MJ, Ross MJ (2012) Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Jul 11;7:CD007986   

Web URL: View this and related abstracts on PubMed here



Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a major problem in children and adolescents, characterised by age-inappropriate levels of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, and is associated with long-term social, academic and mental health problems.  The stimulant medications methylphenidate and amphetamine are the most frequently used treatments for ADHD, but these are not always effective and can be associated with side effects.  Clinical and biochemical evidence suggests that deficiencies of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) could be related to ADHD.  Children and adolescents with ADHD have been shown to have significantly lower plasma and blood concentrations of PUFA and, in particular, lower levels of omega-3 PUFA.  These findings suggest that PUFA supplementation may reduce the attention and behaviour problems associated with ADHD.


To compare the efficacy of PUFA to other forms of treatment or placebo in treating the symptoms of ADHD in children and adolescents.


We searched the following databases in August 2011: CENTRAL (The Cochrane Library 2011, Issue 2), MEDLINE (1948 to July Week 3, 2011), EMBASE (1980 to 2011 Week 29), PsycINFO (1806 to current), CINAHL (1937 to current), BIOSIS (1969 to 30 July 2011), Science Citation Index (1970 to 30 July 2011), Social Science Citation Index (1970 to 30 July 2011), Conference Proceedings Citation Index - Science (1990 to 30 July 2011), Conference Proceedings Citation Index - Social Science and Humanities (1990 to 30 July 2011), Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2011, Issue 7), DARE (2011 Issue 2), Dissertation Abstracts (via Dissertation Express) and the metaRegister of Controlled Trials (mRCT). In addition, we searched the following repositories for theses on 2 August 2011: DART, NTLTD and TROVE. We also checked reference lists of relevant studies and reviews for additional references.


Two review authors independently assessed the results of the database searches.  We resolved any disagreements regarding the selection of studies through consensus or, if necessary, by consultation with a third member of the review team.


Two members of the review team independently extracted details of participants and setting, interventions, methodology and outcome data.  If differences were identified, we resolved them by consensus or referral to a third member of the team. We made all reasonable attempts to contact the authors where further clarification or missing data were needed.


We included 13 trials with 1011 participants in the review.  After screening 366 references, we considered 23 relevant and obtained the full text for consideration.  We excluded five papers and included 18 papers describing the 13 trials. Eight of the included trials had a parallel design: five compared an omega-3 PUFA supplement to placebo; two compared a combined omega-3 and omega-6 supplement to placebo, and one compared an omega-3 PUFA to a dietary supplement. Five of the included trials had a cross-over design: two compared combined omega-3/6 PUFA to placebo; two compared omega-6 PUFA with placebo; one compared omega-3 to omega-6 PUFA, and one compared omega-6 PUFA to dexamphetamine.  Supplements were given for a period of between four and 16 weeks.  There was a significantly higher likelihood of improvement in the group receiving omega-3/6 PUFA compared to placebo (two trials, 97 participants; risk ratio (RR) 2.19, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.04 to 4.62).  However, there were no statistically significant differences in parent-rated ADHD symptoms (five trials, 413 participants; standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.17, 95% CI -0.38 to 0.03); inattention (six trials, 469 participants; SMD -0.04, 95% CI -0.29 to 0.21) or hyperactivity/impulsivity (five trials, 416 participants; SMD -0.04, 95% CI -0.25 to 0.16) when all participants receiving PUFA supplements were compared to those receiving placebo.There were no statistically significant differences in teacher ratings of overall ADHD symptoms (four trials, 324 participants; SMD 0.05, 95% CI -0.18 to 0.27); inattention (three trials, 260 participants; SMD 0.26, 95% CI -0.22 to 0.74) or hyperactivity/impulsivity (three trials, 259 participants; SMD 0.10, 95% CI -0.16 to 0.35).  There were also no differences between groups in behaviour, side effects or loss to follow-up.  Overall, there were no other differences between groups for any other comparison.


Overall, there is little evidence that PUFA supplementation provides any benefit for the symptoms of ADHD in children and adolescents.  The majority of data showed no benefit of PUFA supplementation, although there were some limited data that did show an improvement with combined omega-3 and omega-6 supplementation.It is important that future research addresses current weaknesses in this area, which include small sample sizes, variability of selection criteria, variability of the type and dosage of supplementation, short follow-up times and other methodological weaknesses.


This systematic review has highlighted the need for further randomised controlled trials of 'PUFA' supplementation for ADHD, having found very limited evidence of benefits.

A previous systematic review and meta-analysis has already shown benefits for ADHD symptoms from supplements containing the long-chain omega-3 PUFA, EPA and DHA. (Bloch and Qawasmi 2011).

A major drawback of the main analysis in this Cochrane review is that it combined results from studies using either omega-3 PUFA or omega-6 PUFA or both. 

Omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA play very different but complementary roles in body and brain - and recent re-analyses of trials of 'PUFA' for the prevention of heart disease have found benefits only from the omega-3 PUFA. (see Ramsden et al 2010 and Ramsden et al 2011

It is to be hoped that the effects of omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA for ADHD will be considered separately as far as possible when this review is next updated. However - that will require additional research trials, as the reviewers have highlighted.

For an accessible summary of this research, see the associated news item: