According to a recent randomized controlled trial, fish oil supplements may reduce the chance that a high-risk teen or young adult will develop a psychotic disorder. This story could have been improved in a number of ways. Most importantly, the story could have highlighted some of the study limitations, including that it was very small, the follow-up time was relatively short, and the results may not translate to older patients or to those who already have a psychotic disorder. Furthermore, the story did not mention that it was a placebo-controlled trial–one of the strengths of the study. More information about the fish oil supplement, including its formulation and cost would have been useful to the reader, as would commentary from independent experts.
If the authors of a study suggest that their research should be further explored, it seems that the news story should also temper their excitement.
There was no mention of the cost of dietary fish oil supplements.
The story reports that 5% of the group taking fish oil pills developed psychosis compared to 28% in the group that did not receive fish oil pills. It would have been helpful if the reader knew that 5% meant 2 out 41 patients and 28% meant 11 out of 40 patients. It’s the old problem of journalists using relative risk reduction, not absolute figures. See our primer on the topic. Additionally, the reader doesn’t really know exactly who these patients are, including their original diagnosis and how they were diagnosed.
As the story indicates, fish oil supplements are not associated with serious side effects. Although, some people taking fish oil supplements have reported mild gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea.
The story did not mention that this trial was placebo-controlled—a hallmark of a good study. In fact, it suggested that the fish oil was compared to psychotherapy alone, when in fact, all patients had the option of participating in therapy sessions. It also suggested that there were a large number of participants; however, a sample size of 81 is considered small. Furthermore, the follow-up period was only one year. Although the authors suggest that the findings “should be further explored,” this was not mentioned in the story.
The story does not appear to exaggerate the prevalence of psychotic disorders in teens and young adults.
The story does not include commentary from any independent sources.
The story briefly compares the efficacy of fish oil supplements to antipsychotic medications and psychotherapy.
There is no question regarding the availability of fish oil supplements; however, more information on the specific formulation used in the study, as well as the dosage would have been useful.