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Fish oil can head off first psychotic episodes


3 Star

Fish oil can head off first psychotic episodes

Our Review Summary

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. 


Why This Matters

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. 


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no mention of the cost of dietary fish oil supplements. 

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

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.      

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


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.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

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. 

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The story does not appear to exaggerate the prevalence of psychotic disorders in teens and young adults. 

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not include commentary from any independent sources.   

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story briefly compares the efficacy of fish oil supplements to antipsychotic medications and psychotherapy.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


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.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory
The story might have mentioned that other studies have evaluated the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on depression and other psychiatric disorders, with mixed results.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Applicable
There does not appear to be a news release associated with this story.  

Total Score: 4 of 9 Satisfactory


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