SINGAPORE - Music soothes the savage breast, poets aver. Some scientists now believe that fish oil can have such an effect too - on youngsters and aggressive young prisoners.
In a study in Singapore, fish oil is being given to children and teenagers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other disruptive behaviour, to test if it improves their conduct.
'This study is the first of its kind in Singapore,' principal investigator Daniel Fung said.
The study is led by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), and Dr Fung heads its child and adolescent psychiatry department.
Earlier trials in Britain and Holland found that children with coordination disorders and aggressive young prisoners behaved better after taking the health supplement.
Dr Fung's team includes school psychologist and professor Rebecca Ang of Nanyang Technological University, and University of Pennsylvania criminologist Adrian Raine, who is running a similar trial with children in Philadelphia.
They are building on research - such as a study by Oxford University, in 2002, of more than 100 pupils with coordination and learning difficulties.
Those who took fish oil became more attentive, less hyperactive and less impulsive, among other behavioural and learning improvements.
The premise of such trials is that fish oil, found in the tissues of oily fish like salmon and sardines, is brain food.
It contains high levels of fatty acids believed to enable the brain to work properly, from being attentive to controlling impulsive behaviour.
But the precise process is still being explored.
In a paper published last year, anatomy professor Ong Wei Yi from the National University of Singapore found from tests on rats that anti-depressant drugs caused nerve terminals in the brain to release fatty acids.
These acids changed into compounds that could protect nerve cells in the brain.
The IMH, however, said the use of fish oil is currently not a standard treatment for children with disruptive behaviour disorders.
These include defying parents and teachers, and engaging in fighting, stealing or other anti-social activities.
Such disorders are estimated to affect just below 5 per cent of primary-age children.
The usual prescription is to train parents to manage their children. Those with ADHD also receive medication.
The IMH's fish-oil study will involve 600 patients, aged nine to 16, who have sought treatment from its Child Guidance Clinic. About 30 have been recruited so far and are undergoing the trial.
To prevent bias in the experiment, researchers do not know which group - experimental or control group - the participants belong to. The patients are also not told which group they are in.
Half of the patients are randomly assigned to take capsules with fish oil, in the form of Omega 3 fatty acids. They take four capsules a day, for six months.
The other half are given dummy or placebo capsules filled with sunflower oil, plus a tinge of fish oil.
Dr Fung said: 'The placebo has to taste like fish, so people won't know it's a placebo.'
Half of all patients will also receive training in social skills such as empathy and anger management, to see if the combination of fish oil and such training is more effective than either approach alone.
The study, which has an $890,000 grant from the National Medical Research Council, is scheduled to be completed by the end of next year.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.