Executive functioning issues are weaknesses in a set of important mental skills that are key to learning. Children with executive functioning issues often struggle with working memory, flexible thinking and self-control.
Executive function is critical for learning
Executive function has been described by some 'the CEO of the brain' due to the fact that these skills allow people to set goals, plan and get things done. When children struggle with executive skills, it impacts them in school and in everyday life.
So in other words it is not a learning disability but a common problem for children with learning and attention issues - all children with conditions such as ADHD for example have problems with executive function and those with specific learning disabilities have weaknesses in executive function.
A recent study by Michigan State University and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana looked at children aged between 2 and 6 years old in Ghana. They were all of a village located in the northern part of the country.
The typical Ghanaian diet is heavy on carbohydrates and protein but low in fat putting them at risk of a deficiency in essential fatty acids. The researchers used a spot test to measure the children's omega-3 index and the results reflected this - the children averaged slightly above 4% on the scale which is similar to North American and many Europeans. The typical Western diet is much higher in fat but of the wrong kind.
Children with the highest Omega-3 Index levels performed the best
There was a total number of 307 children whom participated in the trial - after blood samples were taken they were asked to complete a standardized test of executive function called the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) test. The test required them to sort card based on the shape of the image. The older children, of course, performed better than the younger children however the researchers found that the children with the highest Omega-3 Index levels performed the best overall.
The researchers wrote:
"Our data generally supports the hypothesis that children with higher whole blood levels of EFAs (LA and ALA) as well as DHA and EPA were more likely to pass the DCCS test, an indicator of executive function. "
Professor William Harris of Sanford School of Medicine, who jointly developed the Omega 3 Index, suggests the research adds significant results to the omega-3 puzzle. The cardiovascular effects of EPA and DHA have been studied comprehensively and now the cognitive and brain benefits are coming to light too.
"We look for any hint we can find, and research like this is just a hint that there is a connection between low omega-3 levels and lesser executive function."
"This matches up with the results of a study we did a number of years ago with deployed solders in Iraq. There too, we found that lower Omega 3 Index levels were associated with poorer executive function."
None of this will be definitive unless we can do some huge trial. But this is a sign that we're on the right track, so lets keep chasing this."
The research is published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry.