I must admit that when I read about Prof. Bernard Gesch’s experiment on the relation between nutrition and violence, I had a mental reaction that probably approximated something like an intellectual sneer.

Bernard Gesch is a psychologist and an Oxford University professor, an impressive credential. His study was a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial, the gold standard in biological and clinical research. So what’s there not to like? I would say right off: A deep suspicion of nutritional claims, most of them either products of junk science, or no pretense of science at all—just claims.

The experiment

In 2002, Gesch and colleagues published a report in the July issue of British Journal of Psychiatry about an experiment conducted in a prison in Aylesbury, England. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized experiment, Gesch et al. recruited 231 young adult prisoners, assigning half to receive dietary supplements and the other half to receive a placebo. The placebo and active-treatment groups were matched according to their number of disciplinary incidents and their progress through the prison system. There were no significant differences between the two groups in IQ, verbal ability, anger, anxiety, or depression.

Subjects remained on the supplements, which contained vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, for an average of 142 days. Compared to the placebo group, the researchers report, prisoners taking the active supplements committed an average of 26.3% fewer offenses. Compared to baseline rates, there was a 35.1% reduction in offenses in the supplemented group. “The greatest reduction occurred for the most serious incidents including violence,” the researchers note, with a 37% drop seen in such incidents. No side effects were seen in subjects taking the supplements.

This is truly impressive! And believable. The methodology of the study is beyond reproach, the statistical analysis is persuasive. And the societal implications are profound.

The September 25, 2009 issue of Science reports that a much larger and more detailed study is now under way in one of the most violent prisons in the U.K (Polmont, Scotland). The 3-year trial, which started this spring, includes blood chemistry analysis and a battery of computer-based behavioral and cognitive tests designed to address the question that the earlier study could not: If a balanced diet does stem violence, how exactly does it do so?

Other studies have shown a connection between diet and violence, the latest one in the Dutch prison system. Similar findings were reported by Richard Carlton et al. (Alternative Therapies, Vol. 6, No. 3, May 2000, pp. 85-91.), who found that supplements improved mood, behavior, and school performance in learning disabled children. And to close the loop: Several studies have shown a connection between learning disabilities and violent behavior.

What can be done right now?

So what are we waiting for? Here is an inexpensive and scientifically-based intervention that promises to deal with a scourge afflicting our society. Anybody who watched the clip of the young student beaten to death by violent gang members on the streets of Chicago while onlookers did not interfere (and haven’t come forward to give evidence) cannot help but wonder: Why?! And why not try something as inexpensive and as promising as dietary supplements in our prisons and schools?

Part of the answer, criminologists and researchers say, is political: We have an ethos of “get tough” on prisoners. I can hear the hues and cries in certain circles that we are coddling criminals.

Of course, this is not a panacea. Of course, there are deep and complex causes of violence in America. But if there is a real chance of mitigating the problem, if we could save even a few lives, why not try it now?

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.