I was concerned to see that Food for the Brain are say they are close to beginning their “MSc Research Project into a Nutritional Approach for the Treatment of Schizophrenia”. While I would welcome good quality research into nutrition and mental illness, the approach suggested by Food for the Brain is problematic. They argue that:
Since the core assumption is that there is no single biochemical imbalance that causes schizophrenia, the usual study design of testing a single intervention (double blind controlled clinical trial), is not applicable when it comes to complex nutrient interventions. Instead, the aim is to measure the effectiveness of the approach used at the Brain Bio Centre, both in correcting biochemical imbalances, and in restoring mental health. We hope to involve both recently diagnosed and long-term sufferers.
However, there are ways in which (aspects of) such research can still be blinded. For example, if pill-based approaches are used, nutritionists could ‘prescribe’ all patients a personal mix of pills; the control group would get placebos while the intervention group would get active pills. Even if some of the interventions (e.g. certain dietary changes) do not allow blinding, this is no reason why a control group should not be used. Unfortunately, badly designed research is more likely to give positive results: if this research project is insufficiently robust, even ‘positive’ results will not be credible. While there can be good reasons to use research structures other than the randomised controlled trial, Food for the Brain’s discussion of this research project does not make a strong case for such alternative approaches.
I would also be concerned about the ethics of this research. Firstly, doing bad research is ethically problematic in itself: it is not fair to participants, who volunteer their time and bodies to assist in your research; it also wastes funds and resources that could be used in better research. It is therefore very important that this research project should be as robust as possible. Secondly, some of the approaches suggested by Food for the Brain and the Brain Bio Centre have lacked a good evidence base; there are often concerns about using such approaches in vulnerable subjects, especially where they are potentially harmful.
Oddly, the Food for the Brain page promoting this research does not mention where it will be carried out, although it does say that
We have identified the researchers, research supervisors and collaborative university.
I wonder which university has decided to become involved in this. I do hope that they will ensure that the research is conducted to the highest possible standards.