MONDAY, Sept. 8, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Low doses of fish oil may help reduce the number of seizures experienced by people with a form of tough-to-treat epilepsy that no longer responds to drugs, a small new study suggests.
The research was led by Dr. Christopher DeGiorgio, of the University of California, Los Angeles, and included 24 people with epilepsy that could no longer be controlled using medications.
One expert not connected to the study said many people with epilepsy remain without adequate treatment.
"Although medications remain the primary treatment for newly diagnosed epilepsy, more than 35 percent of patients continue to have seizures despite taking antiepileptic drugs," said Dr. David Friedman, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y.
Friedman said that in these cases, patients often resort to alternative treatments such as epilepsy surgeries, special diets or brain-stimulating devices. So the new study using a common nutrient is intriguing, he said.
In the study, the UCLA team gave the patients three separate treatments, each lasting 10 weeks and separated by a period of six weeks.
The treatments were: the "low-dose" intervention of three capsules of fish oil (about 1,080 milligrams) a day plus three "dummy" capsules containing corn oil only; the "high-dose" involving six capsules of fish oil a day, and a placebo treatment of three capsules of corn oil taken twice a day.
The average number of seizures while taking the low dose of fish oil was about 12 a month, compared with just over 17 when taking a high dose of fish oil, and just over 18 when taking the corn oil only.
Two people were completely free of seizures while taking a low dose of fish oil. This did not occur while patients were taking a high dose of fish oil or corn oil.
A low dose of fish oil was also associated with a slight decrease in blood pressure, while a high dose of fish oil was associated with a slight increase. Taking fish oil was not associated with any changes in heart rate, blood fat levels or severity of seizures, the researchers found.
Prior research has suggested that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil can cross from the bloodstream into the central nervous system, where they reduce the excitability of brain cells that trigger seizures, DeGiorgio's team explained.
They said further research is needed to confirm their findings, but added that low-dose fish oil may offer "a safe and low-cost intervention that may reduce seizures and improve cardiovascular health in people with epilepsy."
Friedman agreed that the findings are promising.
"Low doses [of fish oil] led to not only decreased seizure frequency, but also improvements in blood pressure, which is consistent with evidence that omega-3 fatty acids provide improved cardiovascular health," he said.
"Though the study was relatively small, the results are encouraging, as a large number of people with epilepsy do not respond to standard antiepileptic drugs, and alternative treatments should be sought after to optimize seizure control," Friedman added.
But another expert said the study was far from definitive.
"The inexplicable reverse-dose effect found, however, with the low dose associating with better seizure control than the high dose, is counterintuitive," said Dr. Cynthia Harden, director of the North Shore-LIJ's Comprehensive Epilepsy Care Center, in Great Neck, N.Y. "This finding, along with the small sample size, suggests the need for further clarification of the effect of fish oil on seizures."
The study was published online Sept 8 in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.
There's more on epilepsy at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.