Experts challenge Irish ‘fish oil’ study on Alzheimer’s

Waterford-based researchers claim food supplement can slow progress of disease

A number of international health experts have challenged claims made by a team of Irish scientists that a new food supplement can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at the Nutrition Research Centre Ireland in the School of Health at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) tested two combinations of nutritional supplements on Alzheimer's patients.

Prof John Nolan of the Nutrition Research Centre Ireland (NRCI) at WIT School of Health said one supplement contained macular carotenoids, such as Lutein, Meso-Zeaxanthin and Zeaxanth, while the second had carotenoids, plus specially designed fish oil.

Patients who were given the formula containing fish oil during the 18-month study maintained cognitive abilities and quality of life – far beyond those taking macular carotenoids alone.


The patients, who had Alzheimer's from mild to advanced stages, reported measurable benefits in memory, sight and mood, Prof Nolan told The Irish Times.

However, independent experts reviewing the results published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease were not impressed.

Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, said “whilst any research in Alzheimer’s disease is to be welcomed, this is too small a trial” - with just 13 patients involved - and it “lacks a placebo control”.

“In fact I would place no reliance on these results, especially since we know little effect of fish oils or carotenoid supplements on other outcomes in proper trials.”

Experts were particularly critical of comments made by Dr Alan Howard of Cambridge University accompanying the release of the findings.

Dr Howard , inventor of the low-calorie rapid weight loss plan the Cambridge Diet, hailed the WIT results, saying that they “ one of the most important medical advancements of the century”.

“Alzheimer’s disease is the largest public health crisis we face and drug companies have so far fallen at every hurdle in finding a solution. This study gives us that breakthrough, in a unique natural compound of nutrients,” he said.

However, Professor Robert Howard, head of Old Age Psychiatry at University College London, said: “This report is sadly not much more than low-grade anecdotal evidence. Certainly, it falls seriously short of the standards of a high-quality clinical trial in terms of scale and conduct.

“The accompanying claims made by Dr Howard seem irresponsible and completely unsupported by any reasonable reading of his data.

“Sadly, people with dementia and their carers will grasp at any straw and I would worry about the impact of media reports,” he said.

Dr David Reynolds, chief scientific officer at the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “The experimental design of this study makes it hard to draw meaningful conclusions about the effect of these supplements on the symptoms of Alzheimer’s... claims about the significance of these findings should be met with caution.”

In contrast, Prof Riona Mulcahy from University Hospital Waterford, who was the medical consultant to the research, hailed the study's findings as "a very exciting development".

“Up-to-date best medical advice suggests people can lower their risk of Alzheimer’s through moderate alcohol intake, not smoking, being physically and mentally active, and eating a well-balanced diet.”- Additional reporting PA

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times