Fish Oil May Have Positive Effects on Psychiatric Disorders, Alcoholism

May 25, 2011

Omega 3 fatty acids have long been hailed as good for the heart, but can they also be good for the brain?

Omega 3 fatty acids have long been hailed as good for the heart, but can they also be good for the brain?

A recent study has shown possible benefits of the fatty acid DHA, one of the main ingredients of fish oil, for individuals suffering from bipolanr disorder, as well as alcoholics.

Dr. Alexander B. Niculescu, associate professor of psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, studied the behavior of mice models suffering from bipolar disorder. The mice displayed characteristic bipolar symptoms such as depression and becoming manic when subjected to stress.

According to the researchers, “the mice that were given DHA normalized their behavior.”

“They are not depressed and when subjected to stress, they do not become manic,” said Dr. Niculescu. “When we looked into their brains, using comprehensive gene expression studies, we were surprised to see that genes that are known targets of psychiatric medications were modulated and normalized by DHA.”

As an added bonus, the researchers discovered that the mice who received DHA also displayed a decreased craving for alcohol.

“These bipolar mice, like some bipolar patients, love alcohol. The mice on DHA drank much less; it curtailed their alcohol abusive behavior,” he said.

The researchers were stunned, as this finding is novel. They verified this discovery by studying a well-established animal model of alcoholism—the alcohol preferring “P rats”—and obtained a comparable outcome.

“We believe a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids may help the treatment and prevention of bipolar disorder, and may help with alcoholism as well,” he said.

The researchers also discovered a correlation between the brain molecular changes in the craniums of their animal subjects and “biomarkers,” or molecular markers, in their blood.

“There is now substantial evidence at the molecular level that omega-3 fatty acids work on the brain in ways similar to psychiatric drugs,” said Dr. Niculescu. “With these biomarker findings, we can now move forward as a field and do more targeted clinical studies in humans.”

As omega 3 fatty acids are already known to possess positive benefits for the heart and now mind, Dr. Niculescu hypothesized about the possibility of DHA being used as an adjuvant treatment to minimize the amount of psychiatric drugs consumed by an individual, which can be particularly important for pregnant women or women who plan to become pregnant.

“A lot more work needs to be done in this area,” Dr. Niculescu said.

The study is published online in the journal Translational Psychiatry.