DHA Supports Intelligence, Attention Span and Good Behavior in Children

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is sometimes referred to as “brain food” for good reason. Fats make up 60% of the brain and the nerves that run every system in the body, and DHA is the main structural component of brain tissue. Studies are showing that this long-chain omega-3 fatty acid has a huge impact on the developing brain, and may even determine how well children act, mentally and socially.

A study published in the April 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that DHA may be lower in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati conducted the first controlled clinical study to shown an effect of DHA supplementation on functional cortical activity in humans. Twenty-two healthy nine-year-old boys were randomly assigned to receive a placebo (corn oil), 400 mg. of a DHA supplement or 1200 mg. of DHA, each day for eight weeks. (One serving of salmon, 3-4 ounces, contains 600 to 1000 mg. of DHA.)

After eight weeks, each child was asked to perform a task that required focused attention. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to analyze cortical brain activity, specifically in the outer layer or cortex. The researchers found that DHA supplementation increased red blood cell DHA concentrations in a dose-response manner. In addition, although neither dose of DHA influenced the boys’ ability to complete the simple task, there were various effects on brain activation.

A Smarter Fish Oil

For example, DHA increased activation of the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex compared with controls. This region of the brain is important for some aspects of motor planning and intellectual function. A low dose of DHA and the placebo decreased activation of the bilateral cerebella cortex.1

The results of this study provide evidence that dietary DHA influences brain activity in children. Especially in light of these findings, it’s interesting to note a 2006 study done at Maastricht University in The Netherlands and published in Science Direct that measured the relationship between DHA status at birth and behavioral problems at seven years of age.

The aim of the study was to examine the relationship between long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acid status at birth and the later development of behavior problems. In a sample of 393 children, higher levels of DHA at birth were associated with lower levels of problem behavior at seven years old. There was a definite association between later behavior problems in the children who were fed artificial formula as infants, in comparison to the children who were breastfed. The researchers concluded that the DHA status of mothers during the period around birth (especially the period beginning five months before and one month after birth) may have long-term behavioral consequences.2

An earlier study showed that the IQ scores of children of women who took a DHA supplement during pregnancy and lactation were higher in comparison to the scores of children whose mother’s did not take DHA. 3

How to supplement with DHA?

DHA is found mainly in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. Eggs and organ meats have a small amount of DHA in them. DHA is also made from another fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in walnuts, flax seed and canola oil.

There is no standard or fixed therapeutic dosage (the optimal amount needed for a healthy, disease-free condition) of omega 3 fatty acids. Consult your health practitioner for advise on determining the exact dosage of DHA your body requires.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Disease-Proof Your Child, (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006) recommends between 100 and 600 mg. a day of DHA for children with attention disorders, depending on the age and condition of the child.


  1. McNamara RK, Able J, Jandacek R. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010;91:1060–7.
  2. Krabbendam L, Bakker E, Hornstra G, van Os J. Relationship between DHA status at birth and child problem behaviour at 7 years of age. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2007 Jan;76(1):29-34. Epub 2006 Oct 30.
  3. Helland IB, Smith L, Saarem K, Saugstad OD, Drevon CA. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children’s IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics. 2003 Jan;111(1):e39-44.