US Army testing krill oil for warfighters’ cognitive performance

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock / Anatoly Vartanov
© iStock / Anatoly Vartanov

Related tags Omega-3 fatty acid Fatty acid

A new study will determine if omega-3 supplementation can improve cognitive processes in high-performing warfighters.

The Ranger Resilience and Improved Performance on phospholipid bound Omega-3s (RRIPP-3) study will be conducted by the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), and will include second lieutenants entering the Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course (IBOLC) and subsequent Ranger training at Fort Benning.

“The purpose of this study is to investigate whether supplementation with krill oil concentrate can improve specific cognitive processes that underlie key elements of soldier performance that may have a measureable impact on performance and mental health under the extreme psychophysiological stress of military officer training,” ​said study lead Bernadette Marriott, PhD, Professor and Director, Nutrition Section, Department of Medicine and Military Division, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, MUSC.

Omega-3s and the military

One of the 13 recommendations listed in a 2013 report​ called “Technology and Innovation Enablers for Superiority in 2030”​ from the Defense Science Board at the US Department of Defense stated that a comprehensive research program should evaluate the value of nutraceuticals and supplements to improve the resilience and performance of warfighters, with a specific target of extending physical and cognitive performance.

Military interest in omega-3 is nothing new, with a November 2014 edition of Military Medicine​ focusing on the fatty acids as “nutritional armor”​.

Interest has focused on several different endpoints, including improving mood and reducing suicide rates among serving and ex-military personnel, speeding recovery from traumatic brain injury, and improving reaction times of fighter pilots.

A recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders​, for example, found that omega-3s may benefit people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is known to produce psychophysiological symptoms such as a pounding heart.

While the earlier studies have looked at fish oil, the new study will use krill oil from Aker Biomarine. The double-blind placebo-controlled study will follow 450 candidates as they go through the leadership and training course.

“We are particularly interested in studying krill oil concentrate because it is phospholipid-bound and is reported to be absorbed more readily,”​ said Dr Travis Turner, a neuropsychologist and MUSC co-principal investigator.


According to the South Carolina Research Studies Directory​, the study will seek to answer three questions:

1. Will treatment with krill oil concentrate containing the omega-3 HUFAs improve cognitive and psychiatric functioning during U.S. Army Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course (Part I)?

2. Will treatment with krill oil concentrate containing the omega-3 HUFAs improve the performance of officers during portions of the U.S. Army Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course (Part I) and Ranger training (Part II)?

3. Do effects of the supplements continue once a person stops taking them? Are there any group differences in functioning observed 2 months after treatment is discontinued (i.e., after Ranger training)?

Krill supplements © robynmac
© iStock / robynmac

Capt. Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., co-principal investigator, National Institutes of Health, commented: “Of concern is that U.S. food production practices over the last century have resulted in a dramatic change in the fatty acid profile in the American diet with increases in omega-6 fatty acids and decline in omega-3 fatty acids in the food supply. At the same time, a viable hypothesis is that omega-3s help in emotional state, cognitive function and mental health homeostasis.”

The trial started August 1, 2016 and will last until spring of 2018.

Implications for civilians

While the study is focused on US military personnel, the physical and cognitive effects omega-3 fatty acid supplements could also have significant implications for wider population. According to the annual US stratified national surveys by the American Psychological Association (APA), 20% of Americans report living in states of severe stress.

“In the big picture, intake of omega-3s is essential for living a productive and healthy life. For instance, sustained attention, inhibition and cognitive control are essential for everyday things like safe driving, parenting, academic achievement and handling challenges at work,”​ said Dr Marriott.

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