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University of Pittsburgh study links dietary deficiency to anxiety, hyperactivity, learning problems.

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Monday, July 29, 2013, 11:18 p.m.

Dietary changes in the 1960s and '70s may correlate to a spike in anxiety, hyperactivity and learning problems in today's adolescents, according to University of Pittsburgh scientists.

Deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids dating to that time may be affecting teens in industrialized countries, according to a study led by the scientists and published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

“We have always assumed that stress contributes to developing these conditions in at-risk individuals, but this study indicates that nutrition is a big factor, too, and could be a trigger in those genetically vulnerable to conditions like depression or schizophrenia,” said Bita Moghaddam, a Pitt professor of neuroscience who led the study.

Moghaddam said researchers date deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids to the rise in processed foods, increased use of oils lacking omega-3s and a shift to feeding farm animals grains instead of grasses.

That was the period when the parents of many of today's adolescents were born.

“ADHD and autism have been on the rise in this period, and they all coincide with this shift in our diet,” Moghaddam said.

In the study, researchers looked at the omega-3 deficient offspring of rats who grew with an omega-3 deficiency.

They compared the second generation rats' performance on a set of tasks to that of second generation rats in a control group that had no such dietary deficiencies.

“The animals (with the omega-3 deficiency) looked fine and they could learn, but they were slow learners. They were more anxious and had impaired problem-solving abilities,” Moghaddam said.

She hopes the study will lead to a focus on the relationship between diet and brain health.

“We have some good studies on the relationship between diet and heart disease and cancer, but we are very behind on what impact it has on the brain. The brain is a metabolic machine, and what you eat on a daily basis can affect your brain,” she said.

Scientists from Pitt partnered with researchers from the National Institutes of Health in the study supported by grants from the National Institute of Health and the National Institute on Aging Intramural Research Program.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or

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