Researchers have followed up on a small study conducted back in 2007, which gave young people with early symptoms of schizophrenia fish oil tablets in an attempt to keep their condition in check. Eight years later, only 10 percent of the participants given fish oil have gone on to develop schizophrenia, compared to 40 percent of the control group.
The research only involved 81 participants so is far from conclusive, but it's part of a growing body of evidence that suggest omega-3 fatty acids could help to maintain mental health.
Although schizophrenia is usually diagnosed when patients are in their 20s, there are often signs of the condition earlier, which include minor delusions and paranoid thoughts.
Of course, those symptoms can also be seen in a range of non-schizophrenic people, and only around one-third of those experiencing them go on to develop psychosis. Still, researchers have long been interested in whether there's a safe and non-invasive way that they can treat the symptoms early to prevent the disease from progressing.
That's where the fish oil study comes in. It's well established that omega-3 fights inflammation and is essential for our brain cells to develop and function, but recent research has also implicated a lack of fatty acids in a range of mental health conditions. Scientists have found that schizophrenics in particular have lower levels of these fatty acids in their blood cells.
Eight years ago, these results prompted a team of researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia and the Medical University of Vienna in Austria to test omega-3 supplements in people aged 13 to 25. Half the participants were randomly given fish oil tablets for three months, and the other half were given a placebo, and the researchers then followed their progress for a year.
By the end of the study, those who had taken the fish oil tablets were less likely than the control group to progress to a psychotic disorder, but 12 months isn't a huge amount of time to go on. So the researchers have now followed up with 71 of the original participants seven years later, and found that the difference between the two groups has remained.
"We may have put them on a different trajectory," team member Paul Amminger from University of Melbourne told Clare Wilson over at New Scientist.
Best of all, the fish oil supplements don't have any side effects, unlike antipsychotic medications or more extreme measures, and can easily and cheaply be used by anyone at risk.
"Here we show that brief intervention with [omega-3] reduced both the risk of progression to psychotic disorder and psychiatric morbidity in general in this study," the authors write in Nature Communications. "The majority of the individuals from the omega-3 group did not show severe functional impairment and no longer experienced attenuated psychotic symptoms at follow-up."
David Taylor, a psychopharmacologist at Maudsley Hospital in London told Wilson that the results are "striking", but need to be reproduced in a larger study. And while it's safe for anyone to try fish oil, Nigel Barnes of Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust cautioned that over-the-counter supplements may not contain the right dose of omega-3s to be of much use for mental health.
It's also worth nothing that trials on the benefits of omega-3s in adults with schizophrenia have been mixed. So for now we'll have to wait for more research to come in, but it's exciting to think that there may be a cheap and safe way to manage mental health conditions early on, before they escalate.