Researchers investigating whether Omega-3s can reduce aggressive behaviour in Australian prisons.

In a landmark study, researchers will test whether omega-3 supplements can reduce inmate mental health issues, violence and associated costs in Australian prisons.

The $1.8M NHMRC Partnership project, led by UOW’s Associate Professor Barbara Meyer, is the first comprehensive study of its kind. It also involves researchers from the University of Newcastle and the University of NSW, as well as funding and support from the New South Wales and South Australian Corrective Services Departments and Norwegian seafood company Rimfrost.

The study will span five years and include a 16-week randomised control trial in six prisons in New South Wales and South Australia.

The research builds on a UOW-funded pilot study, which identified that prison inmates who are low in omega-3s are more aggressive and more likely to display attention deficit disorder behaviours. The year-long study involved 136 male volunteers at the NSW South Coast Correctional Centre in Nowra and was published in the journal PLoS One in 2015.

Professor Meyer, from the School of Medicine, said: “Nutrition is emerging as a significant yet under recognised contributor to mental health and behaviour and omega-3s in particular have pivotal roles in brain function. In fact, we already know that low omega-3 status is associated with increased mental health issues such as ADD, poor impulse control and depression.”

Associate Professor Mitch Byrne, from UOW’s School of Psychology, who has been closely involved in the project, linking the biological plausibility to mental health, said while causes of aggressive behaviour are multifactorial, any intervention would be more effective if the recipient is at their maximum individual level of cognitive functioning.

“Given about 46 per cent of Australian prisoners have mental health disorders, impulsivity and aggressive behaviour within correctional centres is of high concern, both to individual offenders and custodial authorities.”

Should the intervention be successful in reducing aggressive behaviour by 25 per cent, the researchers expect to see an 8 per cent reduction in inmate assaults, which conservatively translates to $236M in cost savings per year. It also has the potential to reduce violent reoffending if omega-3 use is continued after release.

As part of the study, 600 volunteer inmates at six centres across New South Wales and South Australia will receive either an omega-3 supplement or a placebo oil daily for 16 weeks. The researchers will measure omega-3 blood levels, aggressive behaviour and aggressive attitudes both before and after the supplements are given. The study will take place in a double blind randomised control environment, meaning neither the researchers nor the inmates know who is receiving the placebo.

The project, which is five years in the making, originated from early discussions with UOW Shoalhaven sustainable seafood expert Dr Pia Winberg and Nutritionist Dr Natalie Parletta, from the University of South Australia, and support from Blue BioTech Shoalhaven. As it evolved, the project team brought in UOW Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, A/Professor Byrne, and now involves collaborations with a number of other experts and industry partners. 

The statistics

·  At least 45 per cent of prisoners in Australia are incarcerated for violent offences
·  Approximately 46 per cent of Australian prisoners have mental health disorders
·  Approximately 34 per cent of inmates in News South Wales and Queensland have been assaulted in prison
·  In 2013-14, prisoners cost the nation $2.6 billion, with the average daily cost per prisoner exceeding the average Australian’s daily income

(Source: Corrective Services NSW)