Brain Pills in Schools

May 22, 2008 at 12:15 pm (Alternative Medicine, Bad Science, Nutritionism, Remedies, Supplements) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Just a very brief post today on ‘brain pills’. I found this in my daily email from the BBC today. The report states that:

Schools and universities may soon need to test students sitting exams for brain improving drugs, experts say.

So, in the near future society will be policing children’s use of substances that are thought to improve brain function. We will administer urine drug tests for cognitive enhancers and regulation may have to be introduced to stop these treatments and future ones from giving people an unfair advantage in examinations and tests. What a contrast with the Durham fish oil ‘trial’. I’m not trying to make the argument that cognitive enhancers should be allowed. Rather, I am trying to comprehend the distinction between (1) schools and their county council actively pushing fish oil pills on kids and (2) the ‘need’ for regulation due to a possibility that children may use a brain-enhancement drug for exam success. Is there some kind of moral difference between fish oil pills and ritalin or aricept – or is it a matter of health and safety? Is it cheating to take ritalin… but not cheating to take fish oil pills? Are fish oil pills assumed to be completely safe and pharmaceutical drugs assumed to be inherently unsafe? Was there even a risk assessment made by Durham County Council before they pushed these pills?

More on the Durham Fish Oil Saga here and here.


  1. jdc325 said,

    Actually, I’ve just thought of one possible reason why fish oil pills are not considered to be an aid to cheating in exams. They don’t work.

  2. dvnutrix said,

    What are they going to do? Check for plasma levels – that wouldn’t be in the least invasive.

    jdc325, I seriously don’t know about fish oil pills and their relative merits or de-merits. I am concerned about the way in which they are over-hyped and promoted as a panacea and the lack of testing on specific formulations. When in doubt, unless you loathe it or have been advised not to, eat the oily fish.

    OT, but somewhere, and my memory has faded although it was recently, you have commented/quoted about ONB and Holford’s chelation recommendations. Am I making this up or was it you, and if so, where?

  3. jdc325 said,

    Re OT request: Here? It was p123 of ONB I was looking at.

    “I am concerned about the way in which they [fish oil pills] are over-hyped and promoted as a panacea and the lack of testing on specific formulations”
    Yes – there just seem to be too many assumptions. They’re assumed to be safe; they’re assumed to be effective; it’s assumed they contain what is claimed on the label; it’s assumed that all brands are of the same quality… I suppose these assumptions are common to many (if not all) alternative medicines and health supplements.

  4. dvnutrix said,

    Sure, it’s like all those fabulous TCM herbal remedies that turn out to contain prescription steroids or even phenobarbitol: example of the latter was given in the recent Autism Omnibus hearing.

    For the recent Peet study of fish oil v. fluoxetine and depression, the take-away trumpet point that this was EPA monotherapy rather than the usual, heavily promoted EPA DHA products that are cramming the shelves. The authors claim that this is in line with the review published in the British Medical Journal’s Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB) in February 2007 that concluded:

    Despite observational evidence linking depression with reduced intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, there is no convincing basis for using these nutrients as a [means of alleviating] the condition.

    The DTB review concludes that although some studies report positive effects, other studies reported no significant difference between the fish oil supplements and placebo for the treatment of depression. Peet and co-authors apparently claim that the difference is explained by their use of pure EPA rather than EPA plus DHA.

    Thanks for answering the OT.

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