Exclusive Interview with Dr. Natalie Parletta (formerly Natalie Sinn), Scientist

Natalie Parletta (formerly Natalie Sinn) works in the Sansom Institute for Health Research. Her primary aim is to investigate and raise awareness about the importance of good nutrition for mental health, particularly in disadvantaged/at risk populations. During Natalie’s PhD, she investigated the effects of micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids on learning and behaviour in children with ADHD. She continued this work as a Post- Doctoral Fellow at the University of South Australia, to further study the effects of omega-3s on learning and behaviour in children with ADHD and learning difficulties and on cognition, mood and quality of life in elderly people with mild cognitive impairment.

How do you see the current situation of children with attention deficit?  In school?  At home?  In the playground?
Currently there are many children with symptoms of ADD/ADHD around the world. They have attention and concentration problems. Attention and concentration problems make it difficult for these children to learn. It can be very frustrating for them and affect their self-esteem if their performance is below that of the average classmate. Many children with ADHD also show hyperactive behaviour and poor impulse control. This causes significant problems both at school and at home. Most teachers say, one child with hyperactive and impulsive behaviour can disrupt an entire classroom and sometimes cause problems in the playground as well.

What experience did you already make with such children that have ADD/ADHD?
I have interviewed parents and observed children with these problems, and also seen the children at school. Their behaviour can be very frustrating and difficult to deal with, and many parents are at a loss to find an effective treatment. Some may find short-term relief with stimulant medication but in many children this can result in adverse side effects and does not provide a long-term solution. There is now evidence from a long-term study that children who had been medicated with Ritalin have, their pre-teens, higher risk of stunted growth and juvenile delinquency. As the children get older it can cause problems to find and keep a job, and many turn to substance abuse as a form of self-medication.

How do parents usually deal with such children? How about the environment?
Some people say that children’s behaviour problems are a result of poor parenting. However, it is very easy to parent an easy going child, and a lot more difficult to parent a child with difficult behaviour. This is very distressing for parents, and the problems can become compounded if they don’t have the extra skills and support that are needed to deal with challenging behaviour and poor concentration effectively.

What research field is your speciality?
My undergraduate and Honours studies were in Psychology at the University of South Australia. I then I received a scholarship to do a PhD at CSIRO Human Nutrition in Adelaide. This gave me the opportunity to focus on nutritional influences on mental health. When I researched this further I became very interested in omega-3 fatty acids. My PhD and subsequent research then focused on omega-3 fatty acids, micronutrients and ADHD in children.

What are your best experiences personally with your studies?
Although the omega-3s do not work for all children, I have had many parents report significant changes in their children, for instance being able to concentrate on reading for much longer, improved behaviour at school and no more school suspensions, and in some instances quite profound improvements in their reading and writing skills.

How do parents/children best handle the attention deficits?
Many parents that I have spoken to have tried a wide range of treatments, both medical and psychological, and many have had little success. Many do not know what to do and are desperate for help.

Where are the critical issues in handling attention and behavioural problems?
Attention and behaviour problems that are associated with a wide range of developmental disorders including ADHD, learning difficulties and conduct and mood disorders (and that have a high degree of overlap) are very complex. They have a genetic component, which is evident from the high instance of ADHD, autism, depression, schizophrenia and other mental health problems in families of children with ADHD. There are also a wide range of environmental influences that probably exacerbate a genetic predisposition, including lead exposure, dietary food intolerances and nutritional deficiencies – and perhaps higher requirement for certain nutrients as a result of metabolic difficulties.

Which influence could have nutrition, sport, social environment, on the attention and behaviour of the child?
A healthy diet, regular physical activity and a supportive, nurturing social environment can all promote healthy development and help to alleviate learning and behaviour problems in children.

What can be the contribution of omega-3 fatty acids to children’s development? Do we overestimate their effects?
Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids can play an important role for many children. In some cases it can be quite profound, in some less obvious but still noticeable. It is important to note that omega-3’s are not a magic pill and that not all children will benefit; as noted previously these problems are complex and need to be addressed in a multimodal fashion. But certainly if omega-3 fatty acids are what a particular child needs, and they respond favourably to them, it makes everything else a lot easier.

How long have you been involved in research?
I started my PhD in 2003 and finished it in April 2006. Since then I have worked in a multi-disciplinary research centre continuing my PhD research in omega-3 fatty acids and mental health. I am now interested in working with Indigenous Australian children who suffer malnourishment and are behind in their education. I also want to extend my focus to healthy diets and nutrition in addition to omega-3s, and to focusing on early environmental enrichment to give children a healthy start in life.

There are numerous omega-3 fatty acid products. Which advice could you give parents who would like to try an omega-3 product?
I am not aware of any research that has compared omega-3 products so I cannot say whether one supplement is better than another. The product I have used is eye q™, with successful results and no adverse health risks. I would certainly advise parents, particularly those of children with ADHD, to avoid any products that contain artificial flavourings and/or colourings as many children with ADHD react to these, and even to salicylates or amines that are found in natural flavourings like peppermint and thyme oil.