Both omega-3 and omega-6 long-chain PUFA (LC-PUFA) are crucial to brain development and function, but omega-3 LC-PUFA in particular are often lacking in modern diets in developed countries.

Increasing evidence, reviewed here, indicates that LC-PUFA deficiencies or imbalances are associated with childhood developmental and psychiatric disorders including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autistic spectrum disorders. These conditions show a high clinical overlap and run in the same families, as well as showing associations with various adult psychiatric disorders in which FA abnormalities are already implicated, such as depression, other mood disorders, and schizophrenia.

Preliminary evidence from controlled trials also suggests that dietary supplementation with LC-PUFA might help in the management of these kinds of childhood behavioral and learning difficulties. Treatment with omega-3 FA appears most promising, but the few small studies published to date have involved different populations, study designs, treatments, and outcome measures. Large-scale studies are now needed to confirm the benefits reported. Further research is also required to assess the durability of such treatment effects, to determine optimal treatment compositions and dosages, and to develop reliable ways of identifying those individuals most likely to benefit from this kind of treatment.

Childhood developmental and psychiatric disorders clearly reflect multifactorial influences, but the study of LC-PUFA and their metabolism could offer important new approaches to their early identification and management. Heterogeneity and comorbidity are such, however, that a focus on specific traits or symptoms may prove more fruitful than an exclusive reliance on current diagnostic categories.