LOS ANGELES – An estimated 3 million Americans suffer from epileptic seizures. Although drug therapies often successfully dampen the out-of-control neural firing that produces seizures, such drugs don’t work for everyone.
A new study by researchers at the UCLA School of Medicine now suggests that for such patients, improvement might come in the form of a few capsules of fish oil.
The small randomized controlled study shows that low doses of omega-3 fatty acids — the key ingredient in common fish-oil capsules — may help decrease the frequency of epileptic seizures when drug treatment no longer works.
In the study, just three capsules of fish oil a day – around 1080 mg of omega-3 fatty acids — were found to significantly reduce the incidence of seizures in patients with so-called drug-resistant epilepsy.
The finding comes in stark contrast to previous studies using high doses of omega-3s that showed no clear beneficial effects. Those earlier, negative results were somewhat surprising because omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to cross into the central nervous system and to block calcium and sodium channels in nerve cells, thus preventing the repetitive firing of the cells that characterizes seizure. “The blockade of these channels — especially sodium channels— is the basis for many antiepileptic drugs, like lamotrigine, lacosamide, and carbamazepine,” said Christopher DeGiorgio, a professor of neurology and the principal investigator of the new study.
In patients taking low-dose fish oil, the average number of seizures decreased by 33.6 percent compared to the placebo group, from an average of just over 18 seizures per month to around 12 per month. Two patients on low-dose fish oil were completely seizure-free during their 10- week treatments.
The study results suggest that low-dose fish oil may be a safe, low-cost way to simultaneously reduce seizures and improve cardiovascular health in people with epilepsy, said DeGiorgio — although he cautions that the results are preliminary, and a larger, multicenter trial is needed to confirm the findings.
The relative efficacy of low-dose fish oil compared to high-dose fish oil has also been reported in clinical trials of patients with major depressive disorder. In these studies, subjects experienced significant improvements in mood following supplementation with low doses of omega-3 fatty acids, but no improvement with higher doses.