Fish Oil Supplements May Delay Psychosis in At-Risk Young Adults

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In a small, preliminary study conducted in Austria, researchers found that fish oil supplements may be able to prevent some adolescents and young adults with signs of mental illness from a progression into full-blown schizophrenia. The study adds to the mounting evidence that severe mental illness may be prevented with intervention.

The research is published in the February issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Dr. G. Paul Amminger and researchers in Vienna studied 81 patients, aged 13 to 25, with warning signs of psychosis, also called the prodromal stage. These include sleep disorders, growing suspicious of others, believing someone is putting thoughts in their head, or believing they have magical powers. Half of the group took four fish oil pills a day for three months (1200 milligrams) while the remainder received a placebo.

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After one year, only about 5% of the participants taking fish oil progressed into psychosis, while 28% in the placebo group became psychotic. Psychotic symptoms vary depending upon the type of schizophrenia, but include a flat affect, catatonic behavior, delusions, hallucinations, and disordered thinking.

Schizophrenia is a complex, severe mental illness which affects approximately 2.4 million Americans. It usually begins before the age of 45, and affects both genders equally. Dr. Amminger says that it is “among the most mysterious and costliest diseases in terms of human suffering, so anything that gives some hope to avoid this is great.”

The cause of schizophrenia remains unknown, although there does appear to be a genetic link. The theory being pursued in the Austrian study hypothesizes that people with the disease have an abnormal metabolism of fatty acids, leading to damaged brain cells. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil may help the brain cells repair and stabilize. There is also evidence that the fatty acids interact with chemical signaling in the brain, particularly of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Fish oil can also boost levels of glutathione, an antioxidant that protects the brain against oxidative stress.

One of the added benefits of the fish oil treatment is the lack of serious side effects. The standard therapy for schizophrenia, anti-psychotic medications, often leads to such disturbances as weight gain, sexual dysfunction, sedation or sleepiness, restlessness, and muscle contractions.

Although the findings are promising, the researchers warn against over-interpretation and patients with severe mental illnesses should not attempt to treat themselves. Further research will be conducted by Dr. Amminger with 320 at-risk patients in eight cities, hoping to replicate the findings.

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