In an Indepedendent article arguing that science journalism “standards are pretty high”, Jeremy Laurance discusses Goldacre’s critique of Denis Campbell’s recent Observer piece on DHA and children’s concentration. Laurance describes a trial which
showed that the fish oil “enhanced the function of those brain regions that are involved in paying attention”, as revealed by a brain scanner.
However, as Goldacre noted
It wasn’t a study of fish oil…but of omega-3 fatty acids derived from algae
Nom, algae. Continue reading
I was surprised to see the usually excellent Guardian Science tweeting that “Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate”. This linked to Denis Campbell’s Observer article, reporting that
Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate
US academics discover high doses of omega-3 fish oil combat hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder
Children can learn better at school by taking omega-3 fish oil supplements which boost their concentration, scientists say.
Boys aged eight to 11 who were given doses once or twice a day of docosahexaenoic acid, an essential fatty acid known as DHA, showed big improvements in their performance during tasks involving attention.
Dr Robert McNamara, of the University of Cincinnati, who led the team of American researchers, said their findings could help pupils to study more effectively and potentially help to tackle both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression.
Unfortunately, the Observer’s claims about fish oil are not evidence-based. Continue reading
We were fascinated to come across a Madeleine Portwood presentation on the Food for the Brain site [PDF]: discussing “Essential Fats, School Performance and Behaviour”. One quote stands out, repeated on two slides alongside pictures of very sweet-looking children:
this is not about chemistry. This is about children.
At a first glance, this sounds very compelling: after all, who could argue with the fact that educational psychology in our schools needs to be about children? However, the dichotomy invoked by Portwood here is extremely problematic. A brief discussion of the Cochrane Collaboration will help to make clear why.
The Cochrane logo features a prominent diagram. The diagram
shows the results of a systematic review of RCTs of a short, inexpensive course of a corticosteroid given to women about to give birth too early. The first of these RCTs was reported in 1972. The diagram summarises the evidence that would have been revealed had the available RCTs been reviewed systematically a decade later it indicates strongly that corticosteroids reduce the risk of babies dying from the complications of immaturity. By 1991, seven more trials had been reported, and the picture had become still stronger. This treatment reduces the odds of the babies of these women dying from the complications of immaturity by 30 to 50 per cent.
Because no systematic review of these trials had been published until 1989, most obstetricians had not realised that the treatment was so effective. As a result, tens of thousands of premature babies have probably suffered and died unnecessarily (and needed more expensive treatment than was necessary). This is just one of many examples of the human costs resulting from failure to perform systematic, up-to-date reviews of RCTs of health care.
Research is about both chemistry and children. Because of suboptimal evaluation of the research into how particular chemicals worked in particular situations, a number of babies will have died who might otherwise have been saved.
It is because we care about children – and because children are important – that we need to insist that research conducted in children and on childhood conditions meets the highest possible standards. Continue reading
The Daily Mail is affectionately known as the People’s Medical Journal. Whether we like it or not, now that the Telegraph has effectively withdrawn from any attempt to provide decent medical journalism, the Independent is episodically odd, the Guardian is distressingly full of woo in its lifestyle section, the Times does what it can but is hampered in its editorial tone by the occasional flakiness of Dr Stuttaford and his fondness for supplements and PSA levels, so the Daily Mail is, by default, a high-volume source of medical news for a goodly proportion of the UK public. If anyone had the money to identify the source of newspaper clippings brought into GPs’ surgeries, I would bet good money that a disproportionate number would be from the Daily Mail. Which makes it all the more distressing that the Daily Mail is not only bewildering the nation with the flip-flop of its reporting but possibly trying to gaslight us into believing that we have difficulties with reading comprehension from which only fish oil supplements can save us: Is your Omega-3 fish oil supplement any good – or a load of old codswallop? Continue reading
When I was 12-years old I had a run of history and science projects that absorbed all my interest and exhausted the resources of my local library. Inexplicably, I was granted in-library reading privileges at the University Library. I was free to consult not only books but academic journals and popular reviews. For the first time, I saw publications that I had only read about: London Review of Books, Time Magazine, Paris Match, The Economist, New Yorker. I was overwhelmed by the glamour and gravitas of these periodicals: the smell and weight of the paper stock, the photo-journalism and, above all, the quality of the writing and editing. Continue reading
In their continued efforts to provide a textbook example of why science by press release is a very bad thing, Durham Council’s press releases about their fish oil (non)trial even manage to muddy the water as to which Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) were in the capsules that Durham gave to their schoolchildren. Their latest press release on the issue refers to the “Omega-3 tablets” the children were taking. However, back in 2006 Durham’s press release implied that Equazen’s Eye Q capsules (not tablets) were being used: it quoted Equazen’s Managing Director saying that
the eye q formula can really help enhance achievement in the classroom
Eye Q does not just contain omega 3 fats: it also contains “Omega-6 Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) from evening primrose oil and its metabolite Arachidonic Acid (AA)”. However, as well as Durham’s latest press release, recent coverage by the BBC referred to “fish oil” and Omega-3 supplements. The Northern Chronicle also referred to “fish oil capsules”. Ironically, it took an otherwise pretty poor article in the Daily Mail to point out that evening primrose oil was also given to the children.
It might seem like I’m being pedantic, but Equazen clearly view Evening Primrose Oil as significant, claiming that this “also plays a structural role, assisting in normal nerve function, especially learning and memory.” If we’re going to have ‘pill solves complex social problem‘ stories, people could at least be clear as to what is in the pills. Continue reading
Dr Ben Goldacre of badscience.net has posted a summary of the Durham Fish Oil
Trials Initiative and the latest update to the saga in which Durham Council has released the data showing spectacularly successful outcomes. Except, it hasn’t. Enquiring minds want to know if the data are being held over to be released with a fanfare at the Food for the Brain conference and the session where Dr Madeleine Portwood is scheduled to announce the outcome of the trials initiative. Continue reading