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06 Sep 2006 - Channel 4 - Fish oil for students

by Darshna Soni


By Alex Richardson

To appreciate more of the background to this latest 'miracle pill' story, it's well worth seeing what 'Bad Science' had to say about it just a few days later.

(And NB: despite some striking similarities in our respective comments on this latest supposed 'research' into omega-3, I had no input whatsoever into Ben Goldacre's own excellent article there on this subject)

For details of the largest properly controlled trial in this area, see:

Durham school kids offered omega-3 fish oil. Can it really boost exam performance? 

All Year 11 pupils will be signing-up to take a fish oil supplement for the next nine months.

The initiative, which is the largest-ever programme using fatty acids in the classroom, came from the county council's chief schools inspector Dave Ford, who has followed the progress of children involved in earlier studies taking the omega-3 fish oil supplement.

Mr Ford is convinced that the same improvements in concentration and learning, if applied to Year 11 pupils, could have a direct impact on their GCSE results.

The countywide trial at 36 schools will continue until the pupils finish their exams next summer. The first test of the supplement's effectiveness will be when they sit their mock GCSEs in December.

However, Dr Alex Richardson of Oxford University, the leading scientist in this area, poured scorn on the initiative.

She told Channel 4 News: "This is not a 'trial', because with no control group, it can tell us absolutely nothing about the possible effects of fish oils.

"Quite frankly, at best it's a wasted opportunity - and at worst, it could seriously mislead many parents and professionals."

"The media attention alone means that these students will feel 'special' and may well perform better than expected. The whole exercise is therefore utterly pointless, except as a cheap advertisement - and I'm very disappointed that the media keep giving coverage to this kind of non-story."

"To say anything at all about cause and effect, you need properly randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. So far, only five small trials of this kind have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Only three showed any benefits; and all involved children with behavioural or learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD."

"While it's possible that the behaviour and learning of many more children might be improved by enriching their diets with the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and seafood, properly run trials are the only way to find this out."

Dr Richardson is director of the charity Food And Behaviour Research which is seeking funds for a nationwide study into the possible effects of omega-3.

Related links

Channel 4 Health
Durham County Council
Food and Behaviour Research