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Can Omega-3 Supplements Prevent Schizophrenia?

By Brendan McLean
NAMI Communications Assistant

Providing treatment and support in the prodromal phases of schizophrenia has been effective in producing more positive results for individuals living with schizophrenia. In attempts to delay and even prevent the onset of schizophrenia, attention has been given to individuals meeting criteria considered to have a high-risk for developing psychosis.

Neuroanatomical changes, which have been observed in individuals identified as high risk, point to the possibility of intervention before a psychotic disorder becomes manifested. By addressing individuals before the full expression of schizophrenia, optimistic outcomes are even more readily achievable.

Antipsychotic medication has been used as a method of prevention and has proved effective. However, utilizing antipsychotics remains controversial because between 70 and 80 percent who are considered high-risk do not develop a psychotic disorder within a year. Because antipsychotics have been shown to have a variety of adverse side effects, many believe they should not be administered unless necessary (i.e., after a psychotic disorder has been diagnosed).

Consequently, researchers have searched for a method that would not expose individuals to the side-effects of antipsychotics if possible. In a recent study, researchers found that long-chain ω-3 (omega 3) polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) could be administering as a preventive measure to reduce the risk of a psychotic disorder from emerging. While 27.5 percent of individuals given a placebo experienced further development of their psychosis only 4.9 percent of participants who were given Omega-3 supplements saw their condition worsen.

Omega-3 fatty acids are what are known as essential fatty acids, or EFAs. EFAs are recognized as fundamental to normal brain functioning. They are thought to aid brain functioning in three possible ways: the assimilation of EFAs into brain cell membranes, EFA-induced alteration of neurotransmission and EFA caused reduction of oxidative stress. In separate studies, low levels of all three of these have been implicated in cases of schizophrenia.

Previous research has already shown that using Omega-3 PUFAs is efficacious as an add-on to treatment in reducing both the positive and negative symptoms of schizophrenia, as well as lowering levels of dyskinesia, a movement disorder that is sometimes a side-effect of antipsychotics.

Ethyl-eicosaptaenoic acid (E-EPA) is one of the fatty acids found in Omega-3 that has been looked at more closely. Findings show that E-EPA might provide an increase in the antioxidant glutathione, which correlates with a reduction of oxidative stress in the hippocampus and lessened negative symptoms. Treatment seems to prevent further psychotic development by preventing further hippocampal damage. This once again points to the importance of early treatment and preemptive intervention if possible.

Apart from some people experiencing occasional nausea, Omega-3 supplements are free of adverse effects. Therefore, the low risk, as well as low cost, make them an attractive option as a complement to treatment of chronic schizophrenia and an option to either delay or possibly prevent the further development of psychosis.

What appears to be most significant is that even if intervention is only a temporary measure, the benefits last long after treatment has stopped. Although the effects of Omega-3 were substantial, the sample size was small and further studies need to be conducted.

Although the underlying mechanisms of how Omega-3 works are not fully understood, their well-tolerability and benefits to not only schizophrenia but other mental illnesses and cardiovascular health as well, mean those who are at a high-risk for psychotic disorder or heart health should contact their doctor for more information about Omega-3.