Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a major problem in children and adolescents, characterised by age‐inappropriate levels of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, and is associated with long‐term social, academic, and mental health problems. The stimulant medications methylphenidate and amphetamine are the most frequently used treatments for ADHD, but these are not always effective and can be associated with side effects. Clinical and biochemical evidence suggests that deficiencies of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) could be related to ADHD. Research has shown that children and adolescents with ADHD have significantly lower plasma and blood concentrations of PUFA and, in particular, lower levels of omega‐3 PUFA. These findings suggest that PUFA supplementation may reduce the attention and behaviour problems associated with ADHD. This review is an update of a previously published Cochrane Review. Overall, there was little evidence that PUFA supplementation improved symptoms of ADHD in children and adolescents.
To compare the efficacy of PUFA to other forms of treatment or placebo in treating the symptoms of ADHD in children and adolescents.
We searched 13 databases and two trials registers up to October 2021. We also checked the reference lists of relevant studies and reviews for additional references.
We included randomised and quasi‐randomised controlled trials that compared PUFA with placebo or PUFA plus alternative therapy (medication, behavioural therapy, or psychotherapy) with the same alternative therapy alone in children and adolescents (aged 18 years and under) diagnosed with ADHD.
Data collection and analysis
We used standard Cochrane methods. Our primary outcome was severity or improvement of ADHD symptoms. Our secondary outcomes were severity or incidence of behavioural problems; quality of life; severity or incidence of depressive symptoms; severity or incidence of anxiety symptoms; side effects; loss to follow‐up; and cost. We used GRADE to assess the certainty of evidence for each outcome.
We included 37 trials with more than 2374 participants, of which 24 trials were new to this update. Five trials (seven reports) used a cross‐over design, while the remaining 32 trials (52 reports) used a parallel design. Seven trials were conducted in Iran, four each in the USA and Israel, and two each in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and the UK. Single studies were conducted in Brazil, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. Of the 36 trials that compared a PUFA to placebo, 19 used an omega‐3 PUFA, six used a combined omega‐3/omega‐6 supplement, and two used an omega‐6 PUFA. The nine remaining trials were included in the comparison of PUFA to placebo, but also had the same co‐intervention in the PUFA and placebo groups. Of these, four trials compared a combination of omega‐3 PUFA plus methylphenidate to methylphenidate. One trial each compared omega‐3 PUFA plus atomoxetine to atomoxetine; omega‐3 PUFA plus physical training to physical training; and an omega‐3 or omega‐6 supplement plus methylphenidate to methylphenidate; and two trials compared omega‐3 PUFA plus dietary supplement to dietary supplement. Supplements were given for a period of between two weeks and six months.
Although we found low-certainty evidence that PUFA compared to placebo may improve ADHD symptoms in the medium term (risk ratio (RR) 1.95, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.47 to 2.60; 3 studies, 191 participants), there was high-certainty evidence that PUFA had no effect on parent-rated total ADHD symptoms compared to placebo in the medium term (standardised mean difference (SMD) −0.08, 95% CI −0.24 to 0.07; 16 studies, 1166 participants). There was also high-certainty evidence that parent-rated inattention (medium-term: SMD −0.01, 95% CI −0.20 to 0.17; 12 studies, 960 participants) and hyperactivity/impulsivity (medium-term: SMD 0.09, 95% CI −0.04 to 0.23; 10 studies, 869 participants) scores were no different compared to placebo.
There was moderate-certainty evidence that overall side effects likely did not differ between PUFA and placebo groups (RR 1.02, 95% CI 0.69 to 1.52; 8 studies, 591 participants). There was also moderate-certainty evidence that medium-term loss to follow-up was likely similar between groups (RR 1.03, 95% CI 0.77 to 1.37; 13 studies, 1121 participants).
Although we found low-certainty evidence that children and adolescents receiving PUFA may be more likely to improve compared to those receiving placebo, there was high-certainty evidence that PUFA had no effect on total parent-rated ADHD symptoms. There was also highcertainty evidence that inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity did not differ between PUFA and placebo groups.
We found moderate-certainty evidence that overall side effects likely did not differ between PUFA and placebo groups. There was also moderate-certainty evidence that follow-up was similar between groups.
It is important that future research addresses the current weaknesses in this area, which include small sample sizes, variability of selection criteria, variability of the type and dosage of supplementation, and short follow-up times.
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