November 29/Australian Broadcasting Corporation -- It is already considered to be good for the heart and other ailments, now the fatty acids found in fish oil are considered to be good for the head.

Researchers say a daily dose of fish oil may stop young people at risk developing schizophrenia.

The researchers say the findings could provide a way to treat schizophrenia without the drastic side effects of antipsychotic drugs.

It is possible to identify young people who are at risk of developing schizophrenia, because they experience brief hallucinations or delusions. If they are left untreated, typically around one-third go on to develop a psychotic disorder. However, if they are treated using antipsychotic drugs, they often suffer severe side effects.

Now, research in Austria has highlighted a potentially safer way of treating those vulnerable to developing schizophrenia. The findings are being presented today at a conference of the World Psychiatry Association in Melbourne.

Dr Paul Amminger, who is working now with the Orygen Research Centre in Melbourne, is the lead researcher. "We looked at a group of 81 people, all between 15 and 25 years, and we treated them with omega-3 fatty acids in the randomised control trial (RCT). They were given about 1.5g a day. Not very much, it is actually in the range which you can also reach with a very fishy diet. So it is not a huge amount of fish oil.

"We found quite a marked difference in the group, which was taking fish oil, compared to the group who was not taking oil in terms of developing the signs of schizophrenia. What we saw is that the 12 months followup (phonetic), even the intervention was only for three months, when we followed the people up a year later we saw that about 5% in the omega-3 group developed psychosis, and there were 28% in the placebo group.

"The risk in the placebo group was seven times as high to develop psychosis. And I think probably reason why we saw this quite large effect is that if you have a treatment early, even a benign treatment, early in the phase of a disorder, your effects are probably much better than later in this stage.

Patrick McGorry, director of the Orygen Research Centre, notes, "This research is part of a worldwide focus now, a cutting-edge focus on very early treatment of schizophrenia, just like we do in breast cancer, where we're looking for the smallest breast lump and trying to prevent a potentially dangerous disease from getting entrenched. Similarly now, we're looking at that in schizophrenia. And the fish oil, surprisingly, has proved very positive at this stage of illness.

"We're looking for more benign and safer treatments, more acceptable treatments in psychiatry, and I think this would be one if it stands up. Even if it doesn't, I think it'll be part of the treatment package that we can offer to patients, and there'll be a lot more choice for them as well."

There have been studies before suggesting that fish oil could be used to treat schizophrenia, but the treatment has often been started in later stages of the disorder, and the studies have been small-scale.

In a study coordinated from Australia, the researchers will now try and replicate their findings in nine centers around the world.

From the December 3, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash