Happy Meal? The role of omega-3 fatty acids (fish-oil) in mood and cognition.

Omega-3 fatty acids have received a lot of attention lately. Scientific studies show beneficial effects for cardiovascular problems and several psychiatric disorders, including depression. Advertisement agencies have been trying to reap from that by portraying Omega-3 supplements as a cure to everything. Even the animal food industry tries to benefit from the increasing popularity of omega-3 fatty acids as you can now even buy cat food that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. However, how much do you benefit from omega-3 supplementation when you are healthy and young?

Niki Antypa

Niki Antypa

Niki Antypa

Niki Antypa came from Athens (Greece) to the Netherlands in order to obtain her master’s in Clinical Psychology at the University of Leiden. During her masters thesis she started her investigation on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids and grew a genuine interest in the field of nutrition and depression. Right after graduation, she started her PhD in the department of Clinical, Health and Neuro- Psychology under the supervision of Prof Willem van der Does. Her dissertation project concerns vulnerability to depression, and includes and investigation of the role that omega-3 fatty acids might play in mood and cognition.


Omega-3 supplementation is beneficial for depression

Associations between the Mediterranean diet (which is rich in fish) and depression are becoming increasingly evident. For example, in Greece and in Spain the average fish consumption is high, and more importantly, Greece has been found to have the lowest suicide rates, and Spain has the lowest depression rates in Europe. Additionally, omega-3 supplementation has been found to be beneficial for numerous cardiovascular problems and several psychiatric disorders, including depression. Therefore, Antypa and her colleagues were interested whether there may also be cognitive and mood effects in healthy samples.

How do you study the effects of omega-3 supplementation?

fishoil capsules

fishoil capsules

Antypa and colleagues investigated the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on depression-relevant cognitive functioning in healthy individuals through an experiment with students from Leiden University. Fifty-four healthy university students were randomized to receive either omega-3 supplements or placebo (olive oil) for four weeks in a double-blind design. Absence of current or past depression was assessed using a psychiatric interview. Before and after the treatment, fatty acid composition was determined in the blood of participants. And during the experiment all participants completed a several psychological and cognitive tests which measured mood, cognitive reactivity, attention, response inhibition, facial emotion recognition, memory, and risky decision-making.


Is omega-3 fatty supplementation beneficial for healthy students?

When you are healthy and young, omega-3 supplementation has relatively few beneficial effects on your cognition or mood. It was found that individuals that received omega-3 supplementation made fewer risk-aversion decisions than the placebo group in a decision-making test and at the same time did not show increased impulsiveness. No effects were found on the other cognitive tasks and no consistent effects on mood were observed. Taken together, Antypa concluded that omega-3 supplementation may have a selective effect on risky decision making of healthy people, which may be related to optimism. In addition, since the results showed that such behavior does not reflect impulsiveness, they suggest that it is related to a willingness to take calculated risks

Future research

In the future, the role of sufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in people’s dietary patterns is becoming increasingly important. With rates of depression rising constantly, a balanced diet could exert some degree of protection against such a disorder. Recent research has shown that Vitamin D, largely obtained from sunlight, is also another potential therapeutic agent. Therefore Antypa would like to explore the synergistic combination of nutrients that could form an optimum “dietary anti-depressant”. Further she would find it fascinating to combine such treatment approaches with environmental interventions, such as exposure to (sun)light, or social activation in order to explore new ways for the treatment of depression.

Last Modified: 15-12-2009