Omega-3 fatty acid supplements may be able to reduce disruptive and abusive behavior in children, according to a new study published in the journal Aggressive Behavior.

In turn, this better behavior had a positive effect on the parents, making them less likely to argue with each other and engage in other types of verbal abuse, according to study leader Dr. Jill Portnoy, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Lowell’s School of Criminology and Justice Studies.

“This is a promising line of research because omega-3 fatty acids are thought to improve brain health in children and adults. There is more to be learned about the benefits, but if we can improve people’s brain health and behavior in the process, that’s a really big plus,” said Portnoy.

Portnoy’s research involves the investigation of biological and social factors that can help explain and predict impulsive and risky behavior. Her goal is to help determine effective ways to intervene before anti-social behavior escalates into crime.

This line of research takes Portnoy straight into the heart of the “nature versus nurture” debate — whether those who commit crimes have something in their physiological makeup that predisposes them to doing so or if social factors like abusive family situations are more at play.

“Of course, it’s both,” she said, but exactly how is still to be determined. “Biology and social environment interact in complex ways that we’re just beginning to figure out. Before we can design effective interventions, we need to do research to understand what’s happening.”

In another research project, Portnoy is exploring how a low resting heart rate may lead to antisocial behavior. Working with a counterpart at the University of Pennsylvania, Portnoy studied hundreds of youth in Pittsburgh.

The researchers found that the young people with lower resting heart rates were more likely to act out as a form of sensation-seeking, including antisocial behavior. This can be particularly problematic for kids living where there are few options for positive forms of stimulation.

“My theory is that a low resting heart rate might be an acquired, adaptive trait: If you are subjected to chronic or frequent stress as a child, you adapt by lowering your heart rate,” she said.

“The lower heart rate protects you by blunting your reaction to stressful events, but it can also lead to stimulation-seeking behavior. In other words, a stressful environment may cause physiological changes that lead to an increase in aggressive and impulsive behavior, in addition to causing the behavior directly.”

Source: University of Massachusetts Lowell