A landmark study has found that the vulnerability of young people towards developing schizophrenia is highly reduced if they resort to a daily dose of fish oil.
It was found that omega-3 fatty acids, believed to be beneficial for conditions from heart disease to ADHD, could also help delay or prevent the onset of severe mental illness.
The study was led by Professor Paul Amminger.
The experts from the Orygen Research Centre in Melbourne said that these findings could offer a safe way to treat a crippling condition and potentially prevent schizophrenia and do away with drastic side-effects of anti-psychotic medications.
"This is is an amazing result in a natural product that really puts it out as a serious treatment for people seen most likely to develop psychotic illness," said Prof. Amminger.
He added: "It performed even better than the traditional medications in this particularly vulnerable group so this really shouldn't be overlooked."
The scientists enlisted 81 'high risk' young people aged 13 to 24 who had previously suffered brief hallucinations or delusions.
In general, if left untreated one-third of these individuals will go on to develop a sustained psychotic disorder.
Of them, half were treated with capsules of fish oil, a rich source of omega-3 fats for three months, while the rest took a fishy-tasting dummy substitute.
In one year, three per cent of those who had taken fish oil supplements had developed schizophrenia. This compared with 28 per cent of those who had swallowed the placebo.
According to previous studies, the use of anti-psychotic drugs in early illness reduces the rate to about 12 per cent.
However, their use is controversial as they have severe side-effects like heavy weight gain and increased risk of heart disease.
"What we have here, it seems, is a very good and non-invasive alternative that could be safely used on at-risk people where only a proportion were ever going to develop the condition," said Prof Amminger.
a larger, multi-centre trial is planned by the researchers in a bid to replicate the findings.
Orygen director Professor Patrick McGorry said the findings hold out great hope for young people and their families.
"This unique study shows that, just like in cancer and heart disease, early diagnosis is the key to safer and more effective treatments at lower cost and with less disruption to peoples' lives and future potential," Prof McGorry said.
Omega-3 oils have been claimed as a possible treatment for a range of conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder, rheumatism, heart disease and cancer.
They have also been found to improve concentration and learning in children with ADHD and autism, and reduce aggression among prisoners.
The findings of the study will be presented at the World Psychiatry Association (WPA) Conference.