Saturday September 9, 2006
Fish oil is clearly a matter of huge national importance. Channel 4 and ITV (and the Daily Mail, and the BBC) all report on a plan by education officials in County Durham to give £1 million worth of omega-3 fish oils, to 5,000 children as they approach their GCSE’s, and see how it improves performance.
Contrary to what the pill-peddlers would tell you, the evidence for omega 3 pills being beneficial in children is really rather thin: only a handful of small trials have been published in proper journals, and at last count 3 were positive, 2 were negative, and none were in mainstream children. All these “studies” you keep hearing about in the media are little more than cheap promos for the pill pushers, with no control group, and crippled by inadequate research methods. So bravo for Durham.
Oh hang on. The Eye-Q study is a cheap promo for Equazen’s Eye-Q range: there is no placebo, in fact there is no control group whatsoever. They’re going to the trouble of giving 5,000 children the tablets, 6 a day, under the watchful eye of the nation, hyping the study, with all their hopes pinned on success, and then they’re going to measure their performance against what the council predicts it should have been without the tablets. This is – let me be quite clear – a rubbish study, which has been specifically designed in such a way that it cannot provide useful results: it is therefore a waste of time, resources, money, children, and parents goodwill.
In the name of fairness, I decide to put this modest proposal to Dave Ford, Chief Schools Inspector for Durham, the mastermind behind the project. Then it all gets a bit weird. “We’ve been quite clear,” he says: “this is not a trial.”
Well hang on. I call up to tell you it’s a bad trial, and suddenly that’s okay because it’s not actually a trial? The Press Association called it a trial. The Daily Mail called it a trial. Channel 4 and ITV and everyone covering it all present it, very clearly, as research (damning quotes and clips at badscience.net). In four solid years of moron baiting, this is definitely the most surrealist defense I’ve come across. I check Durham Council’s own press release for it. They call it a “trial” twice, and a “study” once. You are giving something and measuring the result. Your own descriptive term for this activity is “trial”. How is this not a trial? To excuse you out of a hole?
Exasperated, I move on to Equazen. Their Eye-Q tablets cost £7.99 for a ten day supply, and they have given £1 million worth to Durham (street value, as the drug squad say). This has bought them flattering news items on peak time terrestrial television, and large colour photos of their products on prominent news pages.
Adam Kelliher, Director of Equazen, clarifies further: this is not a “trial”, so I cannot critique it as such. Nor is it a “study”. It’s an “initiative”. By now I’m losing the will to live. Dr Madeleine Portwood, the senior educational psychologist running the study, calls it a “trial” (twice in the Daily Mail). You are giving X and measuring change Y. Every write-up describes it as research. The Equazen press release, for God’s sake, calls it a “trial”. This is a trial, a stupid trial, and simply saying “ah but this is not a trial” is not an adequate – nor indeed a particularly adult – defense.
We do not have good evidence that omega-3 will improve normal childrens’ behaviour and intellect. We need proper research. It is clearly of burning interest to the nation. You could take this rubbish Eye-Q “trial” (yes: “trial”) and give half the kids placebo, and you’d have a perfectly serviceable bit of research, giving useful data. Add in a couple of baseline and endpoint tests, maybe shave off some of these thousands of children, and it would cost no more than this foolish promotional sham. You’d be sitting on a huge definitive study. The very thing that is needed. The very thing that mainstream academics are struggling to get funding for. It might well be positive. But what if the result is negative? Scary huh, Equazen?
So I asked the Director: would you give a million pounds worth of free supplements (and dummy pills without the active ingredient) to a research team who were doing a methodologically meticulous randomised double blind placebo controlled trial of omega-3 fatty acids in mainstream children? And he said: “Yes”. Let me know if they tell you “no”, at the usual email address.
Voigt, R.G. et al., A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of docosahexaenoic acid supplementation in children with attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Pediatrics, 2001. 139(2): p. 189-96.
Richardson, A.J. et al., A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the effects of supplementation with highly unsaturated fatty acids on ADHD- related symptoms in children with specific learning disabilities. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 2002. 26(2): p. 233-239.
Stevens, L.Z. et al. EFA supplementation in children with inattention, hyperactivity, and other disruptive behaviors. Lipids, 2003. 38(10): p. 1007-21.
Hirayama, S. et al., Effect of docosahexaenoic acid-containing food administration on symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – a placebo-controlled double-blind study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004. 58(3): p. 467-73.
Richardson, A.J. and Montgomery, P., The Oxford-Durham study: a randomized, controlled trial of dietary supplementation with fatty acids in children with developmental coordination disorder. Pediatrics, 2005. 115(5): p. 1360-6.
The Press Association call it a trial:
“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.”
The Daily Mail call it a trial and talk about the results (next to a nice big glossy colour photograph of a box of Eye-Q brand omega-3 supplements, page 4 6/9/06).
“The trial will continue until their GCSE examinations next June – which will need £1 million worth of supplements supplied free. The company hopes the results of the project will then spark orders all over the country.” Quotes Ford talking about measuring the results, and Portwood calling it a trial too:
Mr Ford added: “We will be able to track pupil’s progress and measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores.” Dr Madeleine Portwood, senior educational psychologist at Durham county council, who has led much of the previous research into fish oils added: “The scale of this new trial is extraordinary. “Previous trials have shown remarkable results and I am confident that we will see marked benefits in this one as well.”
ITV call it research
Fish oil supplements have been heralded as the cure-all for everything from arthritis to heart disease and now research will see if they really do boost IQ.
Channel 4 news present it very clearly as a research project.
They also feature Portwood spouting: “and if we can improve the connections in the cortex then the limbic system is dampened down so the children are less excitable.” “It sounds complicated…” says the narrator.
Dr Madeleine Portwood calls it a trial:
Dr Madeleine Portwood, senior educational psychologist at Durham county council, who has led much of the previous research into fish oils added: “The scale of this new trial is extraordinary.
“Previous trials have shown remarkable results and I am confident that we will see marked benefits in this one as well.” (my italics). I’m not surprised, love.
Durham county’s own press release calls it a trial. twice! and a study once.
“The County-wide trial will continue until the pupils complete their GCSE examinations next June, and the first test of the supplement’s effectiveness will be when they sit their mock exams this December.”
“The trial has won the backing of Durham County Councillors, who are committed to making a difference to children’s outcomes and improving their life chances.”
“All Year 11 pupils at Durham County Council’s 36 comprehensive schools are to be offered omega-3 fish oil supplements to see whether the proven benefits it has already brought children and young people in earlier trials can boost exam performances too.”
Fish Oil Initiative Could Boost Gcse Pass Rate
County recruits 5,000 Year 11 pupils for unique study
Education chiefs in County Durham are to mount a unique back-to-school initiative today which they believe could result in record GCSE pass levels next summer.
All Year 11 pupils at Durham County Council’s 36 comprehensive schools are to be offered omega-3 fish oil supplements to see whether the proven benefits it has already brought children and young people in earlier trials can boost exam performances too.
“We are able to track pupils’ progress and we can measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores,” said Mr Ford.
oh and at the bottom it says “eye q is commercially available through retailers such as Boots and Superdrug. For more information 0870 241 5621 or go to www.equazen.com“
And Equazen’s press release describes measuring the results, and calls it a trial
“The County-wide strategy will continue until the pupils complete their GCSE examinations next June, and the first test of the supplement’s effectiveness will be when they sit their mock exams this December. We are able to track pupils’ progress and we can measure whether their attainments are better than their predicted scores,” said Mr Ford.
“You will be invited to send a reporter and/or photographer to a media launch of the trial at a County Durham school on the morning of September 6 where key players in the initiative, including pupils, will be available for interview.”