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LI doc: Fish oil may treat mental illness

Dr. Barbara Cornblatt, a North Shore-LIJ medical investigator

Dr. Barbara Cornblatt, a North Shore-LIJ medical investigator is launching a research project to find out if taking fish oil capsules daily can delay or minimize serious mental health disorders in teens and young adults. (Feb. 15, 2012) Photo Credit: Handout

If a daily fish oil capsule can alleviate early signs of serious psychiatric conditions, doctors may soon have an inexpensive way to treat symptoms of mental health disorders, local researchers say.

A simple method to treat mental illness has long been sought because powerful psychiatric drugs are expensive and can have serious side effects, said Dr. Barbara Cornblatt of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset and Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, Queens.

Cornblatt said fish oil was chosen for a new national research project because a series of small studies suggested it possessed properties with a beneficial impact on brain chemistry.

"There is some preliminary data that suggests it has success in treating a variety of psychiatric disorders, but we're just beginning to do a lot of the formal studies," Cornblatt said.

Earlier analyses, she said, had focused on fish oil's capacity to help alleviate depression. But she and her colleagues will focus on the oil's theorized capacity to prevent early psychiatric symptoms from spiraling into full-blown psychoses.

Fish oil is composed of omega-3 fatty acids, two of which are believed to affect neurotransmitters in the brain.

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that relay information from one brain cell to another. The two omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, Cornblatt said.

She oversees the Recognition and Prevention Program -- RAP -- at Zucker Hillside in which people between ages 12 and 25 are treated for the early signs of serious psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The hope, Cornblatt said, is that fish oil will help young people at elevated risk function better in school or at work.

Twenty people are being recruited locally into the study with a total of 130 nationwide. The project is double-blind placebo controlled, Cornblatt said, which means half of the participants will receive fish oil capsules and the rest will receive look-alike capsules without it.

"The goal of the RAP program is to intervene and prevent illness before symptoms get worse," Cornblatt said.

Fish oil is not unique to psychiatric research.

In recent years scientists have conducted a flurry of studies involving omega-3 fatty acids in the fight against heart disease, several forms of blindness and cognitive function in older adults.

Dr. Martin Gerdes of the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury found in a study last year that omega-3 fatty acids may provide protection against tissue scarring commonly seen in people with heart failure.

"We know [fish oil] beneficially alters the composition of cell membranes, but we're not sure of the molecular mechanisms" by which this occurs, Gerdes said.

It is well known, he added, that "populations that eat a lot of fish live longer and have healthier lives."

Cornblatt said her research is part of the North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study, a project involving eight other clinical sites.

The institutions are providing funding and a supplemental grant of an undisclosed amount is being provided by the National Institute of Mental health.

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