CHILDREN have a lot to contend with these days, not least a tendency for their pushy parents to force-feed them omega-3 oils at every opportunity. Last year, for example, the Lancet published research showing that folic-acid supplements—sometimes taken by pregnant women—can help those between 50 and 70 years old ward off the cognitive decline that accompanies ageing. Though the way antioxidants work in the brain is not well known, Dr Gomez-Pinilla says it is likely they protect the synaptic membranes.
Omega-3s are found in oily fish such as salmon, as well as in walnuts and kiwi fruit, and there is a strong negative correlation between the extent to which a country consumes fish and its levels of clinical depression.
Work by other researchers, however, has suggested such supplements do improve the performance and behaviour of school-age children with specific diagnoses such as dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder and developmental co-ordination disorder.
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On the Japanese island of Okinawa, for example, people have a strikingly low rate of mental disorder—and Okinawans are notable fish eaters, even by the standards of a piscivorous country like Japan. One such, carried out in the British city of Durham, was controversial in that it was funded by a maker of children's omega-3 supplements and did not include a control group being given a placebo. Moreover, although more work is needed to elucidate the effects of omega-3s on healthy school-age children, Dr Gomez-Pinilla says that younger children whose mothers took fish-oil supplements (which contain omega-3s) when they were pregnant and while they were breast-feeding do show better cognitive performance than their unsupplemented contemporaries.
That, plus evidence that folate deficiency is associated with clinical depression, suggests eating spinach, orange juice and Marmite, which are all rich in folic acid.
In contrast, many studies suggest that diets which are rich in trans- and saturated fatty acids, such as those containing a lot of deep-fried foods and butter, have bad effects on cognition.
Despite the publicity this study has received, Ben Goldacre, author of a book called “Bad Science” that includes an investigation of it, says the results will not be released.


Vitamin E, for example, which is found in vegetable oils, nuts and green leafy vegetables, has been linked (in mice) with the retention of memory into old age, and also with longer life. In particular, these chemicals affect changes in response to different types of stimulation in the hippocampus (a part of the brain that is crucial to the formation of long-term memories, and which is the region most affected by Alzheimer's disease).



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