One thousand young offenders from three prisons in England and Scotland are being recruited for a major trial to see if nutritional supplements can improve behaviour.
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This study follows on from the pilot study most recently reported by Bernard Gesch at the Food and Behaviour Research Conference in Buxton, May 2008. Although this new research is under the supervision of Professor John Stein, the work will be mainly conducted by Bernard Gesch. This most welcome development is work which FAB Research will be keeping a close eye on and it will be reported on at future FAB Research conferences.
The study is being organised by neuroscientist Professor John Stein, of the University of Oxford, whose brother is the chef Rick Stein.
I met them and some of the volunteers at Polmont Young Offenders Institute near Falkirk. Rick Stein has prepared food for the Queen, presidents and prime ministers. But his guests at Polmont were young offenders. Most were serving long sentences for crimes of violence. None of them had ever tasted marinated raw fish before.
The restauranteur, author and TV chef is not part of the trial getting underway in three prisons. Instead, he was there to give some celebrity support to his brother John, a neuroscientist at Oxford.
Professor Stein believes that food supplements - Omega 3 fish oils in particular - can improve reduce the anti-social behaviour of prisoners. Rick Stein takes a less scientific approach, and is simply passionate about fish and its health benefits.
He said: "I really believe that fish is good for the brain - what our grandmothers taught us turned out to be true. "In laymans terms, as I see it, fish oil lubricates the brain and makes it far faster.
"We are what we eat. If you have a balanced diet you will be healthier and that must include fish."
Rick Stein is not re-modelling the prison menu at Polmont. Raw fish was not on the menu for most of the inmates that day - for them black pudding was the popular choice. Healthy options are already available - but few chose them.
Instead, prisoners on the trial will take four capsules a day with their main meal. Half the volunteers will get the micro-nutrients and half placebo or dummy capsules. The researchers will compare the disciplinary record of the two groups over four months.
A smaller, pilot study at Aylesbury Young Offenders Institute in 2002 showed that inmates receiving the supplements committed a third fewer offences.
Professor Stein believes the trial, which will report in two years, will prove a success. He believes a lot of young offenders commit crime because they fail to pick up social signals. "My theory is that micro-nutritients - in particular the fatty acids found in Omega 3 fish oils - improve the function of nerve cells in the brain which deal with visual, social signals.
"When you don't have them it means you can react badly in an impulsive or aggressive manner. In short, fish oils are needed to make the brain work properly."
Although the study had a celebrity launch, there is serious science behind it. It is funded by a £1.4m grant from the Wellcome Trust, the UK's biggest independent funder of medical research.
Dr Mark Walport, Wellcome Trust director, said: "If this study shows that nutritional supplementation affects behaviour, it could have profound significance for nutrition guidelines not only within the criminal justice system, but in the wider community, in schools, for example.
"We are all used to nutritional guidelines for our physical health, but this study could lead to revisions taking into account our mental health, as well."