The Trial That Ate Itself

September 9th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, channel 4, equazen, fish oil, ITV, mail, nutritionists, references, statistics | 121 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday September 9, 2006
The Guardian

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 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.

Academic References

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

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.”

In Conclusion

I win.

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121 Responses

  1. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 15, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    heh, this isnt the first century by a long shot, brain gym, for example, went to several hundred!

    this “you’re hurting kids” guilt trip stuff. wow. i was ready to leave the story alone but now i’m not so sure, it’s not that it’s offensive, but it does make me worry that the point has not been understood:

    * the research is not yet there to show that this intervention is effective.

    * this “initiative” was represented as a “trial”.

    * in my opinion it would be unethical to do a trial which cannot give meaningful data

    * in my very strong opinion it is unethical to mislead the public about trials, wherever the blame for that lies here, because it undermines goodwill for participating in clinical trials: this is something people only do because they accept on faith that they are doing something which will contribute to the greater good. in this case, they will now see that what was represented as a trial turned out to be, not a trial, but what I see as a public relations exercise.

  2. imagineyoung said,

    September 15, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    Nahh, screw them hard. Politicians and jobsworths are getting better and better at corruption and bs.

    Squash them fast. It’s the only way to train them to behave.

    It’s always the cry of the sleazy – we’re doing it for your own good.

  3. ceec said,

    September 15, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    On top of Ben’s 4 points, these are experiments on children, who are not necessarily able to give sensible informed consent on their own behalf.

    Given that their parents are likely to have been seriously misled (e.g. is it or isn’t it a trial? Is there evidence or isn’t their evidence that the drug works? Is this or isn’t this a way to see if “oils = grades”?), any consent to participate they may have given on behalf of their children is meaningless.

    This sort of manipulation of children is horrifying. The whole “it wouldn’t be fair to give them placebo” stuff is disingenuous at best. You might as well use leeches to improve school performance, or branding with hot irons, if you can’t even be bothered to see what happens when you don’t intervene. I’ve heard a bit of caning never hurt anyone.

    Actually I’ve got a failsafe new business plan. It involves some unpublished experiments, a great deal of hyperbole, and a special new vitamin formula. Who’s in?

  4. j said,

    September 15, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    Lyn Portwood wrote: “the results of these trials have been so encouraging that Durham feel that it would be in the best interests of children of they moved on and brought the use of the supplement into the real world – in other words they have moved beyond the laboratory. We should not forget that at the end of the day we are not talking about trials we are talking about children.”

    A couple of other things:
    – so far as I know, all the trials which generated positive results have been in kids with ‘learning difficulties’. Even if these trials are conclusive, it doesn’t seem to follow that all kids will benefit from the pills. Wouldn’t this be something we’d need, um, a trial to check…
    – couldn’t this be integrated with attempts to improve school meals in Durham: basically, feed kids more fish at lunch time. If the pills really cost 90p/kid/day, you can buy a lot of good food for that… This would let you improve kids’ diets further, and if you get kids used to eating fish this might be a habit that sticks after they leave school…
    – if this isn’t a trial – and the evidence is there that kids need this type of pill – what is the Equazen hoping to gain from this? If Durham decides to spend so much money on pills year after year, I’d expect them to put this out to tender – is Equazen hoping to gain an advantage by giving some free-bees first?

  5. nomde plume said,

    September 15, 2006 at 4:10 pm

    No relation (sorry).

    Maybe you would like to ask the ‘main author’ of the original work why they have not produced any more reports in the last three years? Whilst you’re at it you might ask her about certain comments she made in Inverness about Madeline & Adam.

    I would also point out that it is unprofessional to release e-mail addresses – if you wanted to contact me you should have sent the request direct to the e-mail address.

    Of the 97 previous commenst

    1: not related to children
    2: uninformed – education authorities have already got teacher estimates of potential grades throughout primary and secondary school.
    3: Personal attack on Horrobin – not related to children
    4: Personal attack on Kelliher defending his father in law – not related to children
    5: Link to – which DOES refer to a double-blind placebo-controlled one-way crossover trial.
    6:Comment about linseed oil – not related to children
    7: Confuses marine fish oil and cod liver oil. Production is different. Ben confirms Equazen use high quality materials
    8: immature sarcastic comment – not related to children
    9: Mr Ford expects the initiative will help children in real life not in a scientific journal
    10: Number of children 5000: should be a good normal distribution with low error compared to scientists doing research on 5, 10 or 15 children!
    11: Another link to
    12: Does not refer to Durham initiative.
    13:misinformed – Durham approached Equazen I understand – not vice versa
    14:a sensible factual comment
    15:libellous attack on Mr Ford – not related to children
    16:misinformed – all children offered (not compelled) supplement
    17:naive – results can take into account overall increase in pass grades in Nation
    18:attack on Kelliher – no relevance to children. Mr Kelliher has supplied supplements to Durham free – as well as other countries and has declared on this website that if a bona-fide research group come along he will be only too willing to provide supplement/ placebo.
    19:a sensible factual comment
    20:a sensible factual comment
    21:comment about Brain Gym. I cannot comment on this but why tar one company with the failings of another?
    22: misinformed – there is no placebo. Parents have to give permission for their kids to be enrolled. Children won’t be ‘forced’ to have capsules. Capsules will be offered and consumption recorded.
    23:Confirms above statement
    24:facteious comment about linseed oil – not related to children.
    25:see 24
    26:fair comment – but since Durham have been using EFAs for 5 years I think that they may have some idea of the benefits having observed the children.
    27: Facetious comment – not related to children
    28: ditto
    29: YOu wil have to ask Durham but they are presumably of the opinion that there is no equipoise based on their previous clinically controlled trials.
    30: I belive that a tablet of Eye-Q has about 6 calories in it! Weight gain will be minimal. Also – if you are recommending Ritalin then you are well behind the times – suggest you research ritalin-cancer in google.
    31:irrelevant comment
    32:irrelevant comment
    33:Good idea – if you can find one – it is a free country after all.
    34:Why don’t you do just that – and then report their comments – if you dare. Not related to children.
    35:will await your findings.
    36:As mentoined repeatedly by Durham – this is an intiative – the fact that the organisers were misquoted is neither here or their.
    37: I’m sure if you contact Adam Kelliher and say who you are he will be only too pleased to supply you with his supplement. (not related to children)
    38:not relavant to children
    39:An interesting comment
    40:not relavnt to children
    41:silly comment abnout linseed oil – nor relevant to children
    42:ditto – not relavant tochildren
    43:ditto – not releavnt to children
    44:ditto – not relevant to children
    45:conspiracy theory i’m afraid – what if durham did get the average result up to the average (or above) ‘by fair means or fish oil’. It’s results that count and the beneficiaries are going to be the children with better grades.
    46:comment on 45: not relevant to children. Personally I agree that setting targets in public services may not be the best way forward – but how else could government measure any improvement?
    47: silly comments about ‘sabotaging system’ – not relevant tochildren
    48: ditto
    49:valid concerns about children and taking exams – however can anyone find any evidence that taking fish oils can reduce grades? All trials in Durham have been positive – especially on child concentration so that will surely help them revise.
    50:The original Oxford-Durham trial WAS a randomised double blind one way crossover placebo trial.
    51:interesting story – but not related to this forum: not relevant to children
    52:Comment on another ‘trial’ – not Durham
    53:valid point if this was a trial to investigate improvement in children and print results in a peer reviewed journal – but it is not. The sole reason for this initiative is to offer all children the opprotunity to benefit by taking supplements – whether they take them or not is a free choice.
    54:Calories in Eye-Q – negligable. Evidence of bad effects on taking supplements – none. Evidence on taking benefits – plenty.
    55:Linseed oil again – irrelevant to children.
    56:We can hope that children obtain improved grades. I understand Equzen is privately owned so shares cannot be bought.
    57:comments on Mr Holford: not relevant to Durham initiative
    58:Valid but irrelevant: no placebos being given in this initiative.
    59:All secondary schools 36 in Durham will be offered the chance to join in. Please feel free to select 36 schools in another deprived area.
    60:comments based on mistaken thought that this is a clinical trial
    61:unlikely that result swill be published in a peer reviewed journal. However you can look at the school league tables for GCSE results when they come out next year.
    62:Parents are asked about child medical conditions before being given product. Of course having anticoagulents will reduce the risk of heart attacks/ thrombosis etc but as that is a benefit I suppose you don’t want to mention it.
    63:no financial commitment undrtaken by Durham. Of course according to this site there will be no discernable advantages in taking the supplement. . .
    64:I would much rather have children eating sensible food with a balance of all nutrients rather than relying on supplements. Regrettably this is not happening and the education system is in such straights trying to cope with all these children with poor concentration that they are having to take steps. If you don’t feed your child correctly would you prefer a) ritalin or b) fish oil – the effect on concentration is similar?
    65:Genuine concerns. As before you can see the results in August next year and then decide.
    66:An agreement to a valid concern.
    67:comment on 66
    69For the original durham trial all the capsules in term time were handed out by teachers. It is a measure of their dedication in county durham to the wellbeing of the children that they achieved a compliance rate of 75%.
    70:silly comment – not relevant to children
    71:general comment- not relevant to childen
    72:a posting quoting research
    73:Irrelevant: Eye-Q was used in the Oxford Durham Trial, The Middlesbroug hTrial, The Sure Start Trial, The Autism Trial and the Greenfield study so: yes it was used in the Durham trials.
    74:an addendum
    75:Good luck – not relevfant to Children. Ben you haven’t been in a dispute with Equazen have you in the past?
    76:Refers to my reply to 73: Durham obviously belive so much in the benfits of fish oil that they don’t wnat to disadvantage children by offering placebos.
    77: Agree: changes in diet (+ exercise) would be much more benficial – a pro-active treatment is better than a reactive one – but that is the situation at the moment.
    78:Irrelevant to the discussion
    79:Agreement with 78: not relevant to discussion on Durham initiative
    80:Why not ask Mr Kelliher direct? – Oh you did didn’t you – why not publish his reply.
    82:Should the moderator report you to the anti-terrorism police for the comment about poisening children with radioactive materials.? In fact if i remember correctly it is a criminal offence if he doesn’t. Otherwise I’ll treat this with the contempt it deserves.
    83:A sensible comment
    84:A sensible comment
    85:Factual but misinterpreted
    86:Comment on 82: not relevant tochildren (at least not fish-oil ways)
    87:Dr Richardson knows the reason why Durham distanced itself from her. Also as she is in the pay of another company (MorEPA) she is unlikely to want to promote research done by another company is she.
    88:irrelevant comment.
    89: This e-mail was sent under the users work e-mail at the centre for tropical diseases. It is interesting that her employer would allow the use of their computers during office hours.
    90: comments on 89:irrelevant to children
    91: comments on 90-irrelevant to children
    92:toy poodle rather than spanish inquisition: irrelevant to children
    93:shows power of celebrities – you all seem to be eulogising about Jamie when there certainly wasn’t any science in his methods. Although I agree with his aims and applaud his efforts the sad fact is that giving a child 5 good meals a week is not going to have as good an effect as we would like if the remaining 16 are full of ****.
    94:Valid concerns about omega-3. The problem is that reasearch has shown that in adults higher levels of DHA produce much lower (if any) benefits anbd that it is EPA that is important. Highest levels of EPA are found in fish. Regrettably, of course, many foodstocks, not just fish, are being depleted.
    95: Alreaday commented on this – useful for people to read.
    96:Not my field
    97:A suggestion – not related to children
    98: agree with every word said.
    99: unprofessional
    100:From the above you can see that of coments 1 – 97 most are off topic, many are filled with ignorance, antipathy and prejudice and many are just a load of ****.

  6. cath having fun said,

    September 15, 2006 at 4:59 pm

    … and the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data

  7. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 15, 2006 at 5:22 pm

    lynn, i see no reason to make this personal, and i’m not sure i agree with the analysis of your 1680 word post that the posts here: “most are off topic, many are filled with ignorance, antipathy and prejudice and many are just a load of ****.”

    you will understand that as the admin i see a slightly different version of the page from you, for example i can see that a great many of the people here are posting from academic servers and email addresses, and i guess you can also understand that when i see a very long and rather hostile comment, in a public forum, making personal comments about people involved in this research (which i find frankly a little distasteful) from an email address that looks a little like it might be from someone called lynn portwood, from a company in county durham, naturally i might think to ask whether you are related to the madelaine portwood from county durham. frankly i don’t believe you’re not, but everyone can make their own mind up.

    i havent disclosed your email address to total strangers, nor would i, if only to protect from spambots. if you’re suggesting i should have checked whether someone typing their work email address in to my webpage whilst making personal comments about academics was trying to be discrete then i will very happily bear that in mind next time.

  8. Dr Aust said,

    September 15, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    Nom de Plume gives some back-story / history which sets out how the Durham Ed people got to this point. Understandable, but it doesn’t address the basic point:

    Why is this being hyped all over the place as a trial, which is what the COMPANY wants, when it clearly ISN’T a trial as medical science would understand it?

    I completely agree with Ben’s points above in post (Room?) 101.

    I can accept (just about) that the Durham education and ed psychology people have “pure” motives; they want the kids to do better, no argument that kids w behavioural problems are a major challenge to the education system, here’s something that MIGHT help with all of this, they’re getting it for nothing. THink Gift Horse.

    ..That said, they have allowed it to be PRd / publicized / talked-up hyped as a TRIAL, which it evidently isn’t. This is dishonest.

    And note that the response Chris got (post 85) came from a “Press and Publicity” Officer – I trust them about as far as I can… well no, I don’t trust them at all. Press Officer = hired liar. Let’s hear Durham’s psychologists, the scientists, defend it, not press flacks or politician-alike positivity-speak Chief Execs or Dept Directors.

    Assuming the Durham Education peoples’ motives are pure, I think they have not looked the gift horse hard enough in the mouth.


    Equazen will probably get a positive result – see e.g. post 45 – and all the subsequent marketing benefit, without the “risk” of a proper controlled trial At the end of it they will be selling loads more of the stuff, citing the Durham “evidence”, even though we will be no nearer knowing if it works.

  9. RS said,

    September 16, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    Is the problem here, as always, that the people making these decisions don’t really understand how to evaluate the evidence? They are responsive to the trappings of scientific imprimatur, but unable to truly understand it.

    I notice on the press release the claim “This year, the percentage of pupils gaining five or more A*-C grades topped 56 per cent , 5.5% up on last year and the biggest increase ever in a single year in the County. It is likely to bring the County’s pass rate very close to – or even on a par with – the national average pass rate.” so what kind of increase in pass rate do we reckon DCC and Equazen would call a ‘significant’ improvement due to eye q fish oil then?

    I wonder if the backers of this trial, making arguments about how unfair it would be on students to have a proper trial, have actually considered what the financial implications for education are in the long run? Equazen are not going to fund supplements for Durham students forever, and without real scientific evidence one way or the other how can DCC make an informed decision about whether to plough huge sums of money into fish oil supplements or alternative educational initiatives? This seems like short-termism of the worst kind, and has repurcussions outside of Durham when Equazen start to spin their results and pressure other authorities (and parents) to spend a considerable sum on their product.

  10. RS said,

    September 16, 2006 at 1:19 pm

    Quick back of the envelope projection based on the GCSE-Key stage 3 relationship in Durham suggests you might expect a GCSE pass increase of 3-7 percentage points – that’s without any additional non-specific effects (e.g. placebo), so I reckon they need an increase of over 10% to even attempt to conclude anything from their ‘study’. It’ll be interesting to see the effect size, although I imagine the solution is to concentrate on those subjects wth the biggest increase (wow, fish oils improve performance in GCSE History!!!).

  11. Mojo said,

    September 16, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    nomde plume said, “9: Mr Ford expects the initiative will help children in real life not in a scientific journal”

    What evidence does Mr Ford base this expectation on? And why this distinction between science journals and “real life”? Science journals don’t allow contributors to just make things up. In contrast, this “initiative” seems to be based on, at best, wishful thinking.

  12. Therowans said,

    September 16, 2006 at 7:37 pm

    Is anyone aware of any other ongoing ‘trials’ (or similar!) for fish oil?

  13. BorisTheChemist said,

    September 17, 2006 at 1:04 pm


    Comment number 9 deeply troubles me too. This is just a backhanded dismissal of scientific research and the need for peer review publishing as well as a massive dig at the published research that has gone before.

    Experimenting on such a large group of children without a solid scientific case built on publicly accessable, peer-reviewed literature is very unethical to say the least. As a parent I am deeply concerned that not all the facts are available here, should the ‘trial’, sorry, ‘initiative’ become national without such disclosure I would certainly be making a fuss.

  14. Evidence-biased said,

    September 17, 2006 at 3:04 pm

    As leading author on the Oxford-Durham study (Pediatrics 115 (5) 1360-1366), I’ve tried to stand back from this debate – but for the benefit of #98 and #105, I must make clear that:

    1) Durham LEA have all the data collected for our trial, so if they wanted to publish any further papers, they’re very free to do so. (By contrast, some questionnaire data was never provided to the Oxford researchers; and the final data on motor skills – a primary outcome measure – only came across in summer 2004). To suggest that my well-known dislike of Equazen’s promotional activities makes it ‘unlikely that other papers will be released’ is thus misleading in the extreme. I do wonder why Durham LEA haven’t got on with this themselves – but presumably they’re too busy. Or maybe it’s because they know we’d insist on checking their sums.

    2) Unfortunately, media attention dogged our study from early 2002 when data collection first began. The Oxford researchers repeatedly asked Durham LEA to desist from such activities until this trial was completed, analysed and published – but to no apparent avail. This constant premature leakage of information to the media, and its apparent exploitation for commercial purposes, was the reason why our previously good relations with Durham LEA broke down.

    3) In recent years, I’ve given lectures and/or acted as scientific advisor for many different companies who produce and/or sell omega-3 supplements. This is duly noted in my ‘conflict of interest’ disclosure as required on my academic publications on this subject – including the Pediatrics paper. I’ve given many more talks at health or education conferences (where real science actually goes down better than the hype or waffle that often fills ‘training’ days – quite encouraging). And I give almost all my fees to charity – see All my research is independent of commercial influences, and most has been funded by charities. Read my recent book for parents and professionals (trying to stop them falling for the ‘hype’ surrounding both nutrition and child behaviour – all royalties to charity again) and you’ll see that it doesn’t name any supplements; because I don’t ‘work for’ any companies, nor is it my role to advertise their products for them.

    4) As for why I’ve not produced more papers from this particular study myself? Give me a break. Getting the last data mid-2004 and having main results peer-reviewed and published in a major journal by May 2005 was no mean feat. I’ve many other research projects ongoing; and this one was never fully funded in the first place, even before it overran its supposed timescale. (I’ve also had a rather major bereavement recently – as well as writing my book – but what’s that to you?) And if you’d like to ask me about any comments you think I’ve made, why not contact me directly? My e-address isn’t hard to find, but please keep correspondence brief and to the point. I share your apparent desire to ‘help the children’ – but in my view that’s best done by finding out what really works – which means doing proper trials. (Any potential donors out there – please get in touch, as I’d far rather hear from you, actually).

    Finally, I knew absolutely nothing about Ben’s article here until after this appeared. Some people seem to think I helped him write it. Not remotely the case (and I’m not sure which of us should feel more insulted at the suggestion). But he’s done a great job of flagging the real issue – which is that we need more good evidence, not more advertisements.

  15. pv said,

    September 19, 2006 at 6:54 pm

    nomede Plume wrote:
    “21:comment about Brain Gym. I cannot comment on this but why tar one company with the failings of another?”

    Why tar one snake oil vendor with the the failings of another? Did I do that? I think not, though I undoubtedly should have done so. I believe I was questioning the integrity of the LEAs that fall for this tripe. How incompetent can they be? Next thing you know there will be astrology readings at assembly and the first-aid kit will consist of homeopathic remedies (sugar pills and water).

    nomede plume also wrote in an earlier post:
    “Boots are pro-active in the pre-school area and have recently launched a ‘Child Development Programme’ to encourage parents to work with their children and develop their skills”
    Boots also sell homeopathic remedies and other snake oil.

    Basically there are rather too many commercial interests interfering with child development and education in the UK. And frankly its naiive to think they are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Children have always been a sought after target or cover for unscrupulous companies, because of the emotional baggage attached to that section of society. Now another way has been found to get at children in order to generate big profits…

  16. cath having fun said,

    September 19, 2006 at 8:48 pm

    hi there ‘evidence-biased’
    thought i ought to post some support of your statement, a)having a good idea that you are indeed Dr A R, and b) in support of your valid concerns about commercial exploitation.
    My dietetic colleague was aghast to find her local Boots stores positively pushing fish-oil-plus-vits ‘starter’ supplement packs at any mum-with-baby-or-child as they shopped. Is this what is known as their ‘Child Development Programme’ ?

  17. zuclopenthixol said,

    September 20, 2006 at 2:23 pm

    Therowans said ‘Is anyone aware of any other ongoing ‘trials’ (or similar!) for fish oil?’

    Therowans, if you go to and put fish AND oil% in the search box, making sure the ‘all registers’ box is selected, you will get 103 hits. There is bound to be duplication of records as results are not duplicate checked, and studies can be reported in more than one register, but it’s an attempt at having prospective registers of trials.

    If you go to, select The Cochrane Library, and enter The Cochrane Library through the Wiley site, and try fish AND oil* in the search box there, you will find several systematic reviews which mention fish and oil, and there is a hyper link to a clinical trials section of the library. Here you will find over 800 hits of reports of past trials which mention fish and oil. Some relevant, some not.

  18. mrstrellis said,

    September 21, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    I spotted the Boots promo as well, whilst looking at the new improved homeopathic medicine packaging for a cheap laugh. I had a look at the ingredients: there were more colourings, flavourings and sweeteners than a six-pack of Panda Pops. Presumably these were in the vitamins rather than the fish oil?

    Parents who are convinced their child’s ADHD is caused by “additives” could be in a quandary: will the fish oil and vitamins improve the hyperactivity, or make it worse because of the added ingredients?

    Alternatively they could just give their kid a proper diet and plenty of exercise…

  19. psybertron said,

    September 27, 2006 at 4:01 am

    Can’t fault you on this one Ben. This bad science that needs to be called out as such.

    It may be witty word association to pick up on “this is not a trial” and make the Magritte connection, but it misses Magritte’s point … about the distinction between an object and its image. I don’t believe it helps your cause of being pro-good-science to ridicule art by association. (A picture paints a thousand words, only after the thousand words have been understood.)


  20. stratty said,

    April 7, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    Hello. I’m new to this site and found the fish oil topic and the comments interesting.
    Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see an indication that the following videos have been seen and wonder whether various views would change or not after having viewed them?

    OMEGA 3 NIH WORKSHOP VIDEOS (introduction)


  21. mel21 said,

    November 30, 2007 at 6:35 am

    Although I’m only an individual of one person omega 3 fish oil has changed my life.

    I am a sufferer of Bipolar disorder, 4 attempted suicides, and negative effects from Zoloft, Effexor, Lithium, and Prozac.

    I started taking Omega 3 fish oil 6 months ago, not knowing it can affect your thinking and behaviour through Amway, they sent me a trial of their vitamin product when I signed up to their business.

    Two months ago I wondered why I had been in MUCH better moods, able to control my temper, better memory, feel like I had more energy, wasn’t getting depressed anymore, no suicidal thoughts and genuinely a better person to be around. I was no longer feeling irritable during hypomania or had anger outbursts, excessive impulses to drink alcohol ceased, impulse to gamble decreased and have been a very happy person.

    I looked up Omega 3 fish oil on the internet and came across many different studies on the effects it’s had on mood and violence decrease etc and was amazed at how nothing I tried was working for me but this one simple thing, fish oil, that is natural, no side effects, no withdrawal effects, no doctor visits, no prescriptions could change my life so soon.