Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Supplementation in Young Children with Autism

  • Cynthia R. Johnson
  • Benjamin L. Handen
  • Michelle Zimmer
  • Kelley Sacco
Original Article


Recent reports suggest that 52–95% of children with an autism spectrum disorder in the United States are using some form of alternative treatment (Hanson et al. 2007; Harrington et al. 2006; Wong and Smith 2006). One alternative treatment that has been shown to have some potential promise is polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation (PUFA). PUFAs are naturally occurring lipids that must be taken in through the diet and are critical to the rapidly developing brains of young children (Fernstrom 2000; Horrocks and Farooqui 2004). This pilot study involved a 3-month, prospective, open label, but randomized, parallel groups design of PUFA supplement compared to a healthy, low sugar diet (attention control) for young children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The PUFA for this study was Docoahexanoic Acid (DHA). The PUFA group had ten participants while the control group had 13 participants. Participants in the PUFA took two capsules per day for a daily dose of 400 mg of DHA for 3 months. No clinical gains were realized on any of the behavioral or developmental outcome measures. The statistically significant differences can be accounted for by differences in the two groups at baseline. While no clinical improvements were observed, the omega-3 supplements were well-tolerated. While our results do not support DHA supplementation at 400 mg / day, further inquiry is warranted given the equivocal results among individuals with autism and other developmental disorders. Our study was limited by a small sample size and limited outcome measures.


Autism spectrum disorder Preschool children Polyunsaturated fatty acid Alternative treatments 



The authors wish to thank Kathleen Colborn for her assistance on this project with respect to data management oversight and assisting with monitoring adherence. The authors would also like to thank all of the participating families.

Acknowledgement of funding

Supported by the John F. & Nancy A. Emmerling Fund / The Pittsburgh Foundation

Financial disclosures

Dr. Cynthia Johnson reported no biomedical financial interest or potential conflicts of interest. Dr. Benjamin Handen disclosed consulting fees for Forest, Bristol Myer Squibb and has research funding from Forest, Bristol Myer Squibb, Johnson and Johnson, Neuropharm, Curemark. Dr. Dr. Michelle Zimmer reported no biomedical financial interest or potential conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cynthia R. Johnson
    • 1
  • Benjamin L. Handen
    • 2
  • Michelle Zimmer
    • 3
  • Kelley Sacco
    • 4
  1. 1.Children’s Hospital of PittsburghUniversity of Pittsburgh School of MedicinePittsburghUSA
  2. 2.University of Pittsburgh School of MedicinePittsburghUSA
  3. 3.University of CincinnatiCincinnatiUSA
  4. 4.Children’s Hospital of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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