Childhood autism may be linked to a deficiency of Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, Scottish researchers said yesterday. A pilot study at the University of Stirling found that children with autism had cells that broke down fatty acids more rapidly than normal cells. A further study has been commissioned to research what autism advocates call a "crucial piece of the puzzle" for a condition with no known scientific explanation.
Autism rates in Scotland have risen dramatically in the past ten years, a trend mirrored across the developed world. In Scotland, an estimated 50,000 people, nearly 7,000 of them children, suffer from autism. The condition, which causes a range of social and developmental problems, has baffled scientists searching for a cause and cure. But now they think fish fats may be crucial to understanding the condition.
Brain cell membranes are composed primarily of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, substances found in oily fish such as mackerel and salmon. A study of about 20 autistic children last year revealed that cell membranes in their blood metabolised, or processed, fatty acids at a faster rate than other children. The discovery led to speculation that a fatty acid deficiency may be partially responsible for the onset of autism. A further study of 50 children will attempt to confirm the results.
"We have already seen a connection between omega levels and schizophrenia and dyslexia," said Dr Gordon Bell of the university. If cell function in the brain is changed, the behaviour of the brain will change as well. "In exactly what way we don’t know, but if our hypothesis proves accurate, it could be a first step to uncovering some of the mysteries of autism." John McDonald, chief executive of the Scottish Society for Autism, welcomed the new research as an aid to families struggling to understand the condition. "There’s so much information we don’t have," he said. This particular piece of research will just add another piece to the jigsaw. The good news is that good quality Omega-3 fish oil is inexpensive and abundant.