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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 January 2008, 07:40 GMT
Fish oil: a cure for young offenders?
By Clare Murphy
Health reporter, BBC News

A major trial is to be launched to see whether giving young offenders nutritional supplements reduces anti-social behaviour in prison. Its authors believe this could prove a seminal piece of research with major implications for the criminal justice system.

Young offenders' institute
Could supplements make him less likely to harm himself or others?

Young offenders, including murderers, in three institutions in the UK are to be given a cocktail of vitamins, minerals and "essential fatty acids" on top of their normal prison diet.

Their behaviour will be compared with others who are given a placebo.

Researchers, funded by the Wellcome Trust, have high hopes for the million pound trial on 1,000 volunteers - the largest of its kind - after a much smaller study did find supplements had a favourable impact on levels of violence and ill-discipline in one institution in Aylesbury.

This is not about improving prison food, which the team believe is - from a nutritional perspective at least - more than satisfactory. "The problem is that prisoners do not make good dietary choices," says Professor John Stein of Oxford University, "and that's what we're trying to overcome."

The idea that better nutrition could change behaviour is obviously an attractive one - providing a pill is both very simple and incredibly cheap. But it is not without controversy.

Something fishy

That what we eat can impact upon how we behave is hardly a new concept.

A society which really believes a young offender can be cured by a capsule which he takes back to his cell and consumes with his chips has got some serious thinking to do
Frances Crook
Howard League for Penal Reform

When Dr Hugh Sinclair persuaded the British government in 1942 to supplement children's diets with orange juice and cod liver oil, he speculated that among other ills, poor diets could lead to anti-social behaviour.

He may not have then predicted the way in which cod liver oil - rich in an essential fatty acid called omega-3 - would be seized from the shelves of health shops and supermarkets by a later generation of parents convinced it would help their child excel at school.

But while there is pretty much consensus within the scientific community about the protective effect these oils have on the heart, their impact upon the brain - whether to lift depression, curb violent urges, or simply to boost concentration - are less well documented.

Small trials on selected groups of children with disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD have shown mixed results, with small improvements seen in some participants but not others.

Fledgling plans to dish it out to all schoolchildren, regardless of disorders, were shelved after the Food Standards Agency said there was little evidence to support such a move.

And a much touted trial of Durham schoolchildren, in which all GCSE pupils were encouraged to take the supplement in the run up to exams last summer, seems to have been quietly forgotten.

The results did improve, but they have done for the last five years - and the margin of improvement was in fact smaller than previous years.

Acting on impulse

Its impact upon anti-social behaviour takes us into even more uncharted waters.

It is simple, it seems to be highly effective, and the only 'risk' from a better diet is better health
Bernard Gesch
Natural Justice

Omega-3 is one of the key components of a package of 30 nutrients that will seek to bring the offender's intake of vitamins and minerals up to the recommended daily amount.

The researchers are looking for evidence that the supplements are helping the participants curb impulsive urges - seen as a key feature of anti-social behaviour.

Computer tests will be carried out to measure this. Heart rate variability will also be checked - a low rate is said to be predictive of undesirable behaviour - and blood biochemistry recorded.

While it is thought the fish oil holds the most promise, levels of other important nutrients such as zinc and Vitamin D, will also be noted.

The results will then be compared with those of the group offered a placebo.

The researchers hope the findings will mirror, if not better, a study carried out at HM Young Offenders Institution in Aylesbury by the charity Natural Justice, which is also involved in this latest trial.

There capsule takers committed on average 26% fewer disciplinary offences than those taking a placebo and committed 37% fewer violent crimes.

What next?

If the trial does prove a success, it raises as many questions as it answers.

Could it be applied to the prison population as a whole - or does it only improve young, growing brains?

How long will the effects last, and how could you ensure that pill taking continues once the offender has left the prison gate? Even more controversially, could likely offenders be identified and offered the supplements before undesirable behaviour kicks in?

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, does believe that diet plays a role in criminal behaviour and that poor food choices should be seen as part of the social fabric from which these youngsters hail.

"But this is all wrong. What we need is a comprehensive approach: these youngsters need to be taught how to shop, how to cook a nutritious meal and, crucially, how to sit down and eat it with others.

"A society which believes a young offender can be cured by a capsule which he takes back to his cell and consumes with his chips has got some serious thinking to do. Popping a pill can never be the answer."

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