Musings of a phenomenologist

Science, psychiatry and random musings

A pill to help the world

Posted by soveda on September 16, 2008

Now I’m not sure quite what to make of this, I was listening to the radio on the way heard and caught the start of a story about a fish oil trial in prisons. I didn’t listen but thought I would when I got home,I forgot but I was reminded of it by Norbury on the Bad Science forum.

Just like Norbury I had a sinking feeling mainly because of the Durham fish oil non trial.

But this seems a bit different.

It appears from the report to be placebo controlled and at least have an attempt at blinding (putting aside the fishy taste of fish oil capsules for a bit). It seems that the study is being headed by Professor John Stein (yes he is related to Rick Stein the fish restaurant man) and the hypothesis being tested is this:

Food supplements will improve the disciplinary record of those inmates taking the supplements.

How? Well according to the report:

“Food supplements can improve the function of cells in the brain helping us to respond to visual signals in a less aggressive manner”  (27’40” in the “PM” listen again for 16th September)

Prof Stein then explains that the nerve cells that respond to social cues need to act fast and therefore need the Omega-3 fish oils in their cell membranes, the young offenders are deficient in these and this is why they are impulsive and fly off the handle. Now this seems rather reductionist to me but then I am fond of biopsychosocial explanations.

I know there have been studies of this in the past. And these were the conclusions:


  • Dietary interventions should be considered when addressing antisocial behaviours.
  • Without rigorous experimental designs, nutritional effects on antisocial behaviours may be subsumed within effects currently attributed to social risk factors.
  • Dietary standards should be re-assessed to take account of behavioural effects.


  • Behavioural effects may be most apparent in those consuming the poorest diets.
  • Reductions in antisocial behaviours attributed to nutrition may be underestimated due to interactions between groups in prison.
  • Biochemical measures were not available and will be required in any replication to explore the utilisation of nutrients and also mediating mechanisms.

The results of this study are apparently “keenly awaited by nutritionists” (not dieticians mind you).

Frances Crook from the Howard League for penal reform made an interesting point declaring that:

“I think it’s nonsense”

And pointing out that being locked in a cell that was

“basically an open toilet”

might have an effect on someone’s behaviour.

Is this more Medicalisation of behaviour?

Would better food do a better job?

Might decent food make these young offenders feel more like people?

Thank you to Norbury for reminding me of the story and Wewillfix it for the link to the study so I didn’t need to look it up myself.

Edit: I have found the link to the Wellcome Trust press release here. And the study looks relatively robust, it has been mentioned that a significant Hawthorne effect could be seen in this study and I was pondering whether the researchers would also compare pre and post intervention disciplinary record to examine this effect further. This isn’t clear from the press release But I look forward to the results when they are published.


2 Responses to “A pill to help the world”

  1. jdc325 said

    A bit O/T perhaps, but Stein was very good on the Radio 4 show Ben Goldacre did – Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists.

    Think you can listen again here: Radio 4 (can’t check if this link works at the moments, as my work PC is telling me that I need to update realplayer).

  2. soveda said

    Thanks for that, I missed the second episode first time round

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