PUFAs for prisoners: Aussie trial to test omega-3's impact on aggressive behaviour among inmates

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

The inmates, all males aged 18 and above, will undergo 16 weeks of daily supplementation with 1g of omega-3 or placebo each. ©Getty Images
The inmates, all males aged 18 and above, will undergo 16 weeks of daily supplementation with 1g of omega-3 or placebo each. ©Getty Images

Related tags omega-3 Australia Trial

Australian researchers are looking into the effects omega-3 intake on aggressive behaviour in male prison inmates, with a multi-centre trial in six correctional centres commencing this year.

Researchers from the University of Wollongong have already begun recruitment at the South Coast Correctional Centre, and are aiming to start the trial in another three NSW centres (Lithgow, Macquarie and Wellington) in July this year, followed by two South Australia centres next year.

Supplementation and sample-testing

So far, they have recruited at least 40 inmates at the South Coast Correctional centre; they intend to recruit 100 participants at each centre — all males aged 18 and above — before beginning the trial, which entails 16 weeks of daily supplementation with 1g of omega-3 or placebo for each participant.

Professor Barbara Meyer, who will be conducting the trial together with Professor Mitch Byrne, told NutraIngredients-Asia​ that a correctional services officer would be on secondment at each centre for a 12-month period to oversee the day-to-day onsite running of the trial, which would be in two cohorts per site.

These officers will take note of any incidents of aggression that may occur at their respective centres and covert the into numbers based on a scale developed by the research team: -1 indicating pro-social behaviour, 0 indicates a non-case, 1 indicates indirect aggression, and 5 indicates physical aggression.

Inmates with scores of 1 and higher will then be invited to participate in the trial, while those with scores below 1 and / or sufficient levels of omega-3 in their blood will be excluded.

Meyer said: "The officers will handle the recruitment and the supplementation, and we will handle the baseline and post-supplementation assessments (including blood tests and muscle strength tests) before starting on the second cohort.

"We also held a three-day training workshop at the University of Wollongong prior to starting the trial at the South Coast Correctional Centre, and we will repeat this process with the project officers before starting the trial at the other correctional centres.

"We will then measure the Omega-3 Index in the inmates using their blood samples, which will be sent back to our university, where I have a post-doctoral student who will be doing the analysis in my laboratory."

She added that the university had obtained the required ethical approvals from the relevant authorities, and were awaiting the final approval from the Aboriginal Health Research Ethics Committee of South Australia.

Timeline of trials

Two previous studies — one in the UK and one in the Netherlands — had shown that omega-3 supplementation reduced the incidence of severity reprimands among inmates by up to 35%.

This spurred Meyer and her team to embark on similar research in Australia, starting with a pilot feasibility study at the South Coast Correctional Centre in 2013.

"That study showed that inmates who had high levels of omega-3 in their blood had lower levels of aggressive behaviour and ADHD, and vice versa.

"This was a pilot feasibility study, so we didn't have the power to show a definitive outcome, but we did show a great association between omega-3 blood levels and aggressive behaviour," ​said Meyer.

These results earned the university a five-year grant from Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council, allowing it to begin the current multi-centre trial at six correctional centres in the country.

The team expects to complete the trial by the end of 2021, after which it will present the study results to policymakers and industry stakeholders as part of a discussion on how best to increase omega-3 intake in Australia.

The researchers have also taken into consideration factors in the current study design that would ensure improvements over the aforementioned Dutch and British trials.

Meyer said: "The previous two studies didn't measure the levels of omega-3 in the inmates' blood, so our study is an improvement on those studies in that we are measuring their blood levels of omega-3."

Mental mechanisms

She also revealed that the existing hypothesis regarding the underlying mechanisms of omega-3's impact on aggressive behaviour was related to its cognitive health benefits.

"We know that omega-3 enhances cognition throughout one's lifespan — it supports brain development in infants and prevents cognitive decline in old age.

"Put simply, it enhances one's ability to think. It does this through the executive function part of the brain, and also helps with impulse control.

"People with ADHD have thinking difficulties and may also display aggressive behaviour. In fact, the rate of ADHD among people in the prison system is five-fold that among the general population.

"Our hypothesis is that if we can attenuate ADHD in the inmates (with omega-3 supplementation), we should also see a positive effect on aggressive behaviour."

Meyer added the findings could be used to initiate changes in national policy and practice to increase overall omega-3 intake.

"We'll get all the stakeholders in Australia around the table to discuss how we can increase omega-3 intake, whether through diet or supplementation.

"All this is part of the five-year grant — it will take us three years to complete the initial interventions, after which we will hold these discussions."

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