According to a landmark study by Australian scientists, a daily dose of fish oil may prevent young people prone to schizophrenia from ever developing the condition.
The supplement Omega-3 fatty acids, is set to add another feather to its cap. As of now these fatty acids are touted to benefit conditions such as heart disease, autism, ADHD etc. Now scientists say they could even help delay or prevent the onset of severe mental illness.
Experts from the Orygen Research Centre in Melbourne believe that their findings could pave a relatively harmless way to treating and potentially preventing schizophrenia, minus the drastic side-effects of anti-psychotic medications.
"This 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," says lead researcher Professor Paul Amminger.
"It performed even better than the traditional medications in this particularly vulnerable group so this really shouldn't be overlooked", he adds.
The researchers took in 81 'high risk' young people aged 13 to 24 who had previously suffered brief hallucinations or delusions. Typically, if left untreated almost one in three of these individuals will go on to develop a sustained psychotic disorder, say experts.
Of this group, half were treated with capsules of fish oil, a rich source of omega-3 fats for three months. The rest took a fishy-tasting dummy substitute.
An year later, it was seen that only three per cent of those who had taken the fish oil supplements developed schizophrenia. This was against the 28 per cent of those who had swallowed the placebo.
Previous studies give that anti-psychotic drugs when used early in illness , reduce the rate to about 12 per cent. However, their use is hotly debated as they have severe side-effects such as 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," says Prof Amminger. He will present the findings at the World Psychiatry Association (WPA) Conference.
Researchers are expected to carry out a larger, multi-centre trial in a bid to replicate the findings.
Orygen director Professor Patrick McGorry hailed the findings as holding 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 was quoted.
Omega-3 oils have been touted as a possible treatment for a range of conditions. These include depression, bipolar disorder, rheumatism, heart disease and cancer.
They also improve concentration and learning in children with ADHD and autism, as well as reduce aggression among prisoners.