If this study shows that nutritional supplementation affects behavior, it could have profound significance for nutrition guidelines - not only within the criminal justice system, but in the wider community, in schools, for example.
If a few scientists in the United Kingdom have it right, vitamins and other nutrients will soon be dispensed not only to prevent colds, but also to prevent violence. Following successful pilot studies that showed that violence in prisons can diminish by up to 47 percent simply by feeding inmates vitamins and other nutritional supplements every day, a team of researchers led by John Stein, a professor in the department of physiology at Oxford University, is launching a three-year project that will involve 1,000 young offenders at three institutions in England and Scotland.
The scientists will divide the volunteers into two random groups, administering a standard daily vitamin and mineral supplement as well as essential fatty acids to one group and placebos to the other. The inmates will then be monitored closely: their diet will be recorded and their blood will be tested regularly to check for changes in nutritional levels. Investigators will also measure their heart rate variability—a low heart rate is said to be predictive of undesirable behavior—and periodic touch screen computer tests will assess frontal lobe tasks, such as impulse control and planning; they will also be asked to carry out tasks such as remembering which shapes they have seen before.
The researchers will then see if these inputs can be correlated to changes in behavior, including violence, self-harm, and drug-related offenses, or if the changes are mirrored in terms of cognitive functioning. While previous research has looked at the effects of vitamins and fatty acids, nobody has yet been able to establish whether they have a direct impact on the brain and on cognitive functioning—and whether they can help curb violent urges or reduce self-harm. If successful, Stein’s study will provide the first data on dietary standards for behavioral changes.
“If this study shows that nutritional supplementation affects behavior, it could have profound significance for nutrition guidelines—not only within the criminal justice system, but in the wider community, in schools, for example,” says Dr. Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, the London-based medical charity that is funding the $2.8-million study.
One of the pioneers in this field is Bernard Gesch, a senior research scientist in physiology at Oxford, who has been investigating the link since the 1980s. With his charity Natural Justice, which works on developing a new approach to violent behavior, he led a pilot double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial between 1995 and 1997 at Aylesbury Young Offenders Institution in southeast England. The results, which were published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2002, were encouraging: of the 231 prisoners who took part in the study, those who received active capsules of nutrients committed on average 26 percent fewer disciplinary offenses compared to those on placebos, while the reduction was 37 percent for the most serious offenses.
April 16, 2008