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Study reveals how Omega-3 can help the brain to regulate impulsive reactions to aggressive behaviour

Inclusion of particular Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet can help people to adapt their reaction to impulsive physical aggression, according to a new study by Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and the University of Derby.

Omega 3 food supplement tablets
Omega-3 dietary supplements have been used to treat a variety of emotional and behaviour-related health conditions

Omega-3 is important for healthy brain and body function and can be obtained from certain foods, such as oily fish. Insufficient intake of certain fatty acids is linked with several problematic traits in adults and children, including depression, aggressive behaviour, callousness and impulsivity. On the other hand, Omega-3 dietary supplements have been used to treat a variety of emotional and behaviour-related health conditions such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and major unipolar depression.

The research explored dietary intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, in particular one known as Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), in relation to how people impulsively react in response to a threat or frustration, and whether they can adapt that behaviour.

Dr Alex Sumich, associate professor in Psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, said: “We often use facial expressions of distress, such as fear and sadness, to help regulate our aggressive behaviour. That is, if you see someone is frightened of you, you stop attacking them. This has been referred to as a Violence Inhibition Mechanism (VIM). People who struggle to respond to these cues often have difficulty in adjusting their aggressive behaviour.”

Participants in the study first filled in questionnaires about specific aspects of their diet and completed a scale which assessed their tendency to engage in reactive physically aggressive behaviour, for example, aggression in response to a threat or frustration.

Using electroencephalography (EEG), their brain activity was then measured while they were shown faces on a computer screen. If the face was threatening, they were instructed to respond by pressing a button on a computer keyboard, simulating an 'attack'. Occasionally, as the person was responding, the facial expression changed to one of distress (i.e. fear or sadness) and the participant was instructed to change their response.

Dr Dean Fido, lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, said: “Using EEG, we showed that modulating this behaviour required participants to activate frontal regions of the brain. People who were better able to activate these frontal regions reported higher dietary intake of EPA, and lower levels of reactive aggression. Questionnaire responses also showed that dietary intake of EPA was associated with lower self-reports of reactive physical aggression.”

The findings are in line with a growing body of evidence that suggests that the Omega-3 EPA intake plays an important part in regulating emotions and may help reduce impulsive violent behaviour.

Dr Fido added: “It’s possible that dietary supplements of EPA could be effective for certain types of antisocial personality disorder that are particularly characterised by disinhibition. We recommend that this area is investigated further in future research.”

The project was part-funded by Nutrimed AS, Norway, who manufacture the high-EPA supplement Crystal Mind.

  • Notes for editors

    Press enquiries please contact Helen Breese, Public Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8751, or via email.

    Don’t slap the fish: The relationship between dietary Omega-3 intake and physical aggression is mediated by motor inhibition in response to distressed faces was authored by Dr Dean Fido, University of Derby, and Dr Nadja Heym, Dr Claire Bloxsom, Kirsty Hunter, Michael Gregson and Dr Alexander Sumich, Nottingham Trent University.

    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2019 in the Guardian University Awards. The award was based on performance and improvement in the Guardian University Guide, retention of students from low-participation areas and attainment of BME students.

    NTU was also the Times Higher Education University of the Year 2017, and The Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

    The university has been rated Gold in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework – the highest ranking available.

    It is one of the largest UK universities. With nearly 32,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University contributes £900m to the UK economy every year. With an international student population of more than 3,000 from around 100 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook.

    The university is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable NTU to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was awarded University of the Year in the UK Social Mobility Awards 2019.

    A total of 82% of its graduates go on to graduate entry employment or graduate entry education or training within six months of leaving. Student satisfaction is high: NTU achieved an 87% satisfaction score in the 2020 National Student Survey, above the sector average of 83%.

    University of Derby

    The University of Derby is one of the region’s leading higher and further education institutions, dedicated to meeting the needs of our students, our economy and our public services. We are a university of social mobility, rated as second in the country for Fair Access (HEPI) and ranked among the 30 best UK universities (Guardian University Guide 2020).

    We offer multiple access routes into further and higher education at our campuses in Derby, Buxton, Chesterfield and Leek, as well as through the University of Derby Online. The University is rated Gold in the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework and has won a prestigious national award for its learning and teaching strategy (THELMA 2018).

    We are an applied university, providing students with a superb real world experience which prepares them for their future career through apprenticeships and traditional degree programmes, work placement opportunities and the teaching of industry-relevant skills in sector-leading facilities, including a STEM Centre, Forensic Training Facility and NHS-standard hospital ward.

    We work with industry to access graduate talent, funding and knowledge exchange opportunities which can enable businesses to thrive, and we are addressing skills gaps in professions such as teaching, nursing and policing too. As many as 96% of our students find graduate level employment or further study within six months of graduating.

    We are Derby and Derbyshire’s only university and we are determined to have a positive impact on our local communities, the region and the UK.  We also have a global outlook and are building exciting partnerships with colleges and universities around the world, as well as attracting students from many different countries to study at Derby.

Published on 11 August 2020
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences