CNS Drugs

, Volume 17, Issue 15, pp 1081–1091

Clinical Potential of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Schizophrenia

  • Robin Emsley
  • Piet Oosthuizen
  • Susan J. van Rensburg
Leading Article


The phospholipids in the neuronal membranes of the brain are rich in highly unsaturated essential fatty acids (EFAs). It has been hypothesised that abnormalities of phospholipid metabolism are present in patients with schizophrenia and that the EFAs omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in particular, may have a role in treating this illness. Considerable preclinical and clinical evidence provides support for this proposal. An epidemiological study reported a better outcome for patients with schizophrenia in countries where the diet is rich in unsaturated fatty acids. Evidence of abnormalities of EFAs has been found in erythrocyte membranes and cultured skin fibroblasts of patients with schizophrenia, and abnormal retinal function and niacin skin flush tests (markers of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid depletion) have also been reported. Case reports and an open-label clinical trial reported efficacy for EPA in schizophrenia. Four randomised, controlled trials of EPA versus placebo as supplemental medication have now been reported. Two of these trials showed significant benefit with EPA on the positive and negative symptom scale total scores, whereas the other two did not show any effects on this primary efficacy measure. One study also reported a beneficial effect on dyskinesia. In the only published trial in which EPA was used as monotherapy versus placebo in schizophrenia, some evidence was found to suggest antipsychotic activity. Taken together, there is considerable evidence to suggest abnormalities of EFAs in cell membranes of patients with schizophrenia, and there is preliminary evidence that EPA is an effective adjunct to antipsychotics.


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Copyright information

© Adis Data Information BV 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robin Emsley
    • 1
  • Piet Oosthuizen
    • 1
  • Susan J. van Rensburg
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Health SciencesUniversity of StellenboschCape TownSouth Africa
  2. 2.Department of Chemical Pathology, Faculty of Health SciencesUniversity of StellenboschCape TownSouth Africa

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