Is fish oil a “miracle” brain healer? CNN does irresponsible story.

CNN features story about a teen with a severe brain injury whose parents self-treated him with high doses of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.

‘He’s going to be better than he was before’ –

Grant Virgin, 16, was struck by a hit-and-run driver and sustained a torn aorta, a traumatic brain injury — including skull fractures and bleeding throughout his brain — compound bone fractures and spinal fractures. The doctors gave him slim chance for survival but did all they could.

From that moment forward — time and time again — they would go against doctor’s orders. That included trying unconventional, untested therapies — anything that might help Grant. One in particular involved giving him high doses of omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil).

Fish oil is what the Virgin family believes ultimately — dramatically — altered his life course, and healed his brain.

Weeks before fish oil was even considered, Grant Virgin underwent multiple surgeries, and spent considerable time on a ventilator.

Eventually, his body was stable, but his brain was still riddled with damage. He was in a coma, and his doctors urged his family to “wait and see” while his brain healed.

They took “advice” from non-professionals which seems like a very irresponsible action. Not only that, but they “snuck” in treatment without telling the physicians! Typically, people think that administering their own complementary treatments will not cause harm and may only help. That’s not necessarily true. However, fish oil, does have known healing properties of reducing inflammation. Doctors have a responsibility to be cautious, not run headlong into trying “anything” that might work. Grant’s family did consult an expert, Dr. Barry Sears, who had consulted on the first-ever case of high-dose fish oil for traumatic brain injury in 2006 on injured miner Randal McCloy who recovered.

The speculation is that a chemical in the fatty acids help the brain rebuild from destruction.

But fish oil as a viable and well-studied intervention is still a ways off; for now it dwells in the realm of the anecdote or case study.

There are other cases of success and other cases of failure. I do not think it is wise of CNN (Dr. Sanjay Gupta) to hype a story like this where people will only focus on the apparent success of taking medical treatment into their own hands. There is a good chance, as with “medical breakthrough” news, that people fail to understand the complexities and think it’s overly simple to self-treat.

But the omega-3 fatty acids idea is worth exploring. This seemed like a very good opportunity for a case study that would provide a basis for further research. There is no way to tell right now what role it played in Grant’s recovery. It could be that the trauma treatment was impeccable, that he was young and was able to respond better to treatment or that it was entirely a fortunate situation all around that allowed him to survive and be on the road to recovery. But there is a glaring error in thinking glossed over in this piece:

The Virgin family says that progress would not be happening if they had merely accepted what conventional medicine told them.

THEY CAN’T KNOW THAT. And to make a statement as fact is potentially harmful to others who think that rejection of conventional medicine is the answer. This piece was annoying and deserved to be written within a more responsible frame. In essence it encouraged people to brush off their medical professionals and take advice from nonprofessionals. That’s dumb. They took an interesting story and made it something it shouldn’t be.

  29 comments for “Is fish oil a “miracle” brain healer? CNN does irresponsible story.

  1. January 18, 2014 at 3:04 PM

    I took cod liver oil & Omega 3, along with Gloucosamine for a few years to try anything to minimise effects & pain of rheumatoid arthritis – after so called scientific studies said it was proven to aid in pain & anti-inflammatory problems. Did very little or nothing, & what little effect i suspect was the placebo effect, & my desperate wishful thinking (i can admit my failings unlike some), & certainly never helped my mental state. Still have sociophobia, anxiety attacks & short term memory problems. I fear many poor deluded folk over dose & make themselves even more ill with many supplements. Sadly the so called “science” surrounding fish oils & Omega 3 is very confusing & contradictory. Ditto for things like caffeine, several glasses of alcohol, aspirin or paracetamol for heart conditions, etc. One of the corners of medicine/science that contradicts itself regularly, & can understand people getting desperate & following one of over optimistic reports than the others. Science & the medical profession – the serious side, has it’s share of blame to take just as much as the modern version of snake oil salesmen, promising miracle cure alls.

  2. Lagaya1
    January 18, 2014 at 4:43 PM

    And that’s why fish have such large and highly functioning brains. Oh, wait…

  3. January 18, 2014 at 5:24 PM

    Aye shows how thick the fish are – flying fish have not yet broken into the lowcost flight markets. Dolphins, turtles, & the odd whale have only rescued the odd poor fisherman, not millionaires. On the other hand look at politics there are so many 2 legged sharks, disguised as human, & even more in the psychic fortune telling world. I think it’s something to do with substance abuse, & drinking like fish. Dunno why i’m going to ask this & appear thick as champ (Ulster/Irishism), if fish oil so good why hasn’t it been exploited for fuel, so we can do another mass extinction of more species, but still run more cars? Everybody is speaking in French, i’m tired, & the brain cell is wandering lonely on it’s own around this large empty space, so the thought processes are a bit squiff agin, sorry!

  4. Sean South
    January 18, 2014 at 8:04 PM

    Since when did most news media outlets have to be “responsible”? It’s bad for ratings.

  5. January 18, 2014 at 8:09 PM

    Any time I see the name Sanjay Gupta I anticipate nonsense passing for science. The benefits of omega-3 oils in any form are still being tested and debated, let alone fish oil which has risks as well as possible benefits. Both Gupta and CNN must know how little anecdotal evidence means in science (of course, a great many anecdotes DO become data). Sounds like the same “post hoc, ergo proper hoc” evidence that is used to support faith healing, ionic pain bracelets and other bogus treatments.

    However, re: Paul Robinson’s experience with glucosamine, mine was positive. I began taking it when I learned I was missing three disks almost entirely in my cervical vertebrae; my doc wanted to fuse a number of them to relieve my pain. Happily, glucosamine research had produced some positive results and I gave that a try. My condition improved enormously so glucosamine prevented my having the surgery and losing mobility in my neck, whether or not it was actually responsible for my improvement. Results of later studies have varied, but the current research is positive as to its effectiveness, with the much maligned chondroitin also being given some credit.

  6. January 19, 2014 at 12:34 AM

    In a lot of these cases you’ll note that the person first went to the traditional doctors. The traditional docs said they didn’t have anything that could help. Then the person tries “something else”. Anything else. But they only do so after the regular docs give them no hope. You see this a lot in “Lorenzo’s Oil” and “First Do No Harm” … both true stories.

    So in this case: where is the harm in fish oil? Might work, might not, But the family was hardly anti science:

    “There are seven such cases in the medical literature, according to Sears “Maybe the work with Randy (McCloy) was just a lucky break,” said Sears, “But we’ve now done it seven times. So, so far we’re 7-for-7 in severe brain trauma.”

    I know when my own son was in the hospital, I used a lot of treatments that the docs didn’t prescribe. They didn’t advise against them either, and I DID ask. When I asked them “what to feed my son” mostly they just said “talk to the nutritionist” and the nutritionist advised a canned supplement which my son could not eat without throwing up. The docs are very much into their own specialty, and nutrition isn’t their thing. Things have gotten better these days, but really, don’t dump on the parents. They are trying hard to save their kids.

  7. January 19, 2014 at 4:52 AM

    If you accept the likelihood of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (for me, the only idea explaining the emergence of man that makes sense), fish and other sea food would have made up a substantial portion of our early ancestors diet. The main driver that enlarged our brains was undoubtedly the chance development of language, but sea food may have helped.

  8. Peebs
    January 19, 2014 at 6:42 AM

    A small point. My anatomy may be a little rusty but a ruptured aorta isn’t a traumatic brain injury.
    The aorta is the largest artery in the body and runs from the heart down the anterior spine.
    The Carotid Arteries supply the head.

  9. Lagaya1
    January 19, 2014 at 1:05 PM

    You’re reading that incorrectly. He suffered many things: a ruptured aorta, a traumatic brain injury, and fractures.

  10. Peebs
    January 19, 2014 at 1:26 PM

    You are entirely correct, I missed a comma.

    I am now standing in the corner wearing a pointy hat.

  11. January 19, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is completely discredited.

  12. Lagaya1
    January 19, 2014 at 4:34 PM

    Just shake it off and get back in the game.

  13. January 20, 2014 at 3:11 AM

    I think you are incorrect on this one Sharon. A number of scientists and others are of the opinion that AAH will be vindicated in some degree. There is no other sensible explanation of why our earliest species ancestors left the forest and became bi-pedal. Also, most important of all, the likely catalyst for the chance evolution of speech.

    Are you familiar with Elaine Morgan’s books? She was a very polite lady, who listened to those who rubbished her ideas and accepted that she may not have got everything right. You will remember that Alfred Wegener was also called a fool for suggesting that South America had been joined to Africa, until many years after his death.

  14. January 20, 2014 at 11:32 AM

    No, I’m not wrong that the AAH has been rejected by scientific consensus. That’s a fact. That a minor few hold on to it means nothing. You will always have that.

    Politeness also means nothing in terms of the validity of a idea. It simply did not hold up to scrutiny. Both Wegener AND Darwin did not have mechanisms for their ideas but as science progressed, those came. I don’t see how that analogy helps the AAH. This is a fringe idea, not mainstream and not accepted as a productive path to understanding of human evolution.

  15. January 20, 2014 at 1:38 PM

    “ A new Scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up familiar with it.” So said a very wise man (Max Planck).

    I know you don’t believe everything you read Sharon, Think about it yourself and please answer this question for me. Is there a reason why our nearest relatives – the Bonobos, the Chimps, the Gorillas and the Oran-Utans never left the trees, never became bi-pedal (unless they were wading through water) and NEVER LEARNT TO SWIM – like our ancestors did?

    I may not be around long enough or I’d put on a bet with you (It may take another twenty years but the AAH will reach the text books).

  16. January 20, 2014 at 1:59 PM

    Last I checked Dr. Barry Sears is a trained professional. As is Dr. Donald Stein, Dr. Daniel Amen, Dr. Anna Cabeca, Dr. Hyla Cass…I could continue to list the people I spoke to before proceeding and the research that we evaluated but I think you get the idea.
    JJ Virgin

  17. Chris Howard
    January 20, 2014 at 2:45 PM

    Mmmmm aquatic ape! Tastes like aquatic chicken! Pairs well with plantains and Shiraz. 😉

    Having been in direct care of head trauma patients I can say that some cases show a lot of progress, others don’t, and we simply do not know why?

    We know more about the human brain than ever before, but we are still just scratching the surface. So, I’m fairly certain that while we can’t rule out Omega 3’s we, also, have no way of verifying its efficacy in this case. So we can’t say that it did anything positive, either.

    In this instance we must fall back on expert consensus.

  18. January 21, 2014 at 2:04 AM

    I don’t know your opinion of Daniel Dennett, Sharon (I personally don’t accept his philosophy but he is certainly a sceptic). He wrote –
    “During the last few years, when I have found myself in the company of distinguished biologists, evolutionary theorists, palaeoanthropologists and other experts, I have often asked them just to tell me, please, exactly why Elaine Morgan must be wrong about the aquatic theory. I haven’t yet had a reply worth mentioning, aside from those who admit, with a twinkle in their eyes, that they have also wondered the same thing.”

    I occasionally give talks about the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis and, three years ago, travelled to Borneo specifically to see the Proboscis Monkeys (I knew that they were know to be bi-pedal sometimes, when they came down from the trees). I quickly learnt a new fact I had not seen mentioned before, they can and do swim UNDERWATER. A number of monkey species can swim but the Proboscis are top of that league (fishermen have found them as far as twenty miles out at sea). It is thought that the large bulbous nose of the adult males is the result of sexual selection, however the smaller retrousse nose of the females and younger males is very much like our own. This is likely to be a swimming adaptation.

    We humans have provided rope bridges over rivers in Borneo, to help enlarge the Oran Utan’s territory and so their survival. Although they live in the same habitat as the Proboscis, by chance they never learnt to swim and they don’t have a nose like ours.

  19. Lagaya1
    January 21, 2014 at 3:05 AM

    Sharon provided 3 links above that explain why the hypothesis has been rejected. I haven’t seen the other two but the Skeptoid link is pretty good, and I think most people would agree that it’s fair.

  20. January 21, 2014 at 4:09 AM

    Anyone can pick arguments against their own selected parts of the AAH, but they still can’t answer the biggest question of all. How did Human evolution start? Oh, yes, it was by chance but there must have been a traumatic catalyst. We know that we are one of the Apes but why did our variety leave the forest? Food would have been much more difficult to find and we would have exposed ourselves to a far greater chance of being killed and eaten by predators. No other Apes have left the trees for those very reasons. However if, by chance (because of a rise in sea levels), our habitat flooded !!!

  21. Lagaya1
    January 21, 2014 at 4:16 AM

    Also of note, to me at least: You say Dennett hadn’t heard a reply to his question worth mentioning?, but how do we know what he, who is not an evolutionary biologist, would find worth mentioning? Also the “twinkle in their eyes”… is that equal to a wink? Like they know the “truth” but just won’t say it? Also your comment earlier that “a number of scientists and others” support your aquatic ape hypothesis is not very precise. Are they biologists? Is it a majority of biologists? I don’t think so.

    I don’t see any evidence here to support your beliefs.

  22. Monica Wood
    February 7, 2014 at 7:36 AM

    My son had a dirt bike accident. He was going more then 78 mph with no helmet. He sustained a severe brain injury. The doctor told me that he has bruises all over his brain, no bleeding and no swelling. I have started the high dosage of omega 3 fish oil on my son Wednesday. I do see a sign of progress. I do hope this will help my son. The doctor told me that he is not in a coma but unconscious. His accident happen on 8/8/2013 was out of the coma 9/11/2013 but is still unconscious today.

  23. February 7, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    This is not evidence that omega 3 works. Science is not done by anecdotes. There are too many other potential reasons for conditions to change.

  24. February 7, 2014 at 11:20 PM

    Agreed, most of the science that gets accepted as “real” is done in the lab. And fish oil HAS been studied for that usage:

    The researchers conclude that the findings suggest a need for further studies to determine if acute injection of these emulsions could be neuroprotective after stroke injury in humans. They also suggest that the emulsion rich in DHA will prove to be a novel and important therapy to treat stroke and could decrease mortality and increase long-term functional recovery after stroke in humans of different ages. The paper’s senior author is Richard Deckelbaum, MD, director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia’s College of Physicians & Surgeons.

    The study also mentions “EPA is also an omega-3 fatty acid found in coldwater fish. EPA can prevent the blood from clotting easily. Often paired with DHA in fish oil supplements, these fatty acids are known to reduce pain and swelling” and “DHA is an essential omega-3-fatty acid and is vital for proper brain function. It is also necessary for the development of the nervous system, including vision. Moreover, omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold water fatty fish, including salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, shellfish, and herring, are part of a healthy diet that helps lower the risk of heart disease. DHA has potent anti-inflammatory effects. Since inflammation is at the root of many chronic diseases, DHA treatment has been widely demonstrated to have beneficial effects in patients with coronary heart disease, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, sepsis, cancer, dry eye disease, and age-related macular degeneration. Its potential benefit in stroke is now being documented.”

    After the lab work is done though, a group of people are often chosen to be guinea pigs to try it in real life, see if it works or not. And a lot of people experiment on themselves! Actually most of the “science” done in previous eras wouldn’t count these days. Hooke, for instance, experimented by giving himself mercury to cure his stomach ailments.

    It may have been in response to the constant pressure from the society (and himself) that the experimentalist Hooke performed plenty of experiments on his own body. Many of his adventures in self-experimentation were dangerous; almost all of them were pretty disgusting. At various times, he medicated himself with botanical purgatives, botanical emetics, mercury, steel filings, tobacco, absinthe, and mineral water so foul that he found ammonium chloride preferable to it. Hooke obsessed over getting a good night’s sleep and clearing out his lethargic digestive system. He often found his home remedies violently effective. He authored a recipe for turning pee into phosphorus salts, including an intermediate step of letting the effluvia sit “till it putrify and breed Worms.”

    The scientists would get together and compare notes on their ad-hoc experiments, and that ended up creating more formal experiments. Same thing happens today, all the time.

    So … where does “anecdotal evidence” end, and “proper science” begin? When is it ok for a parent to experiment on their kid, when the treatment is already considered pretty harmless? Do only scientists get the right to run experiments?

  25. Peebs
    February 8, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    Thanks for the Hooke link, he’s long been a bit of a hero of mine.

    Besides being a randy (horny) old goat he also designed some of the churches built following the Great Fire of 1666, some being wrongly attributed to Wren.

    He also designed ‘The Monument’ to the fire and had it built as a huge telescope.

  26. carolyn
    February 10, 2014 at 6:20 PM

    seems one point is missing from most comments. these parents were told to pull the plug, end his life, no hope. So why not try fish oil. As a person who recently lost a very young family member, I understand their resolve not to give up. How worse could the alternative be. And what if it does turn out to be the precursor to a new treatment. Many discoveries we take as standard were once thought ridiculous……

  27. February 10, 2014 at 7:44 PM

    Because it’s not been shown to work. Even if they used it and he got better, you have NO reliable knowledge. Why not try everything under the sun, because it’s pointless false hope. He could have just gotten better on his own. The body has an amazing ability to heal itself. To promote a nonsense treatment is not smart. To try it on a whim because of what you’ve “heard” is stupid.

  28. February 10, 2014 at 9:36 PM

    Isn’t experimentation the CORE of scientific discovery? Is science only supposed to stay in the safety of the lab? What is the difference between a parent experimenting on their own kid, vs. a doctor experimenting on my kid? Docs test new procedures all the time, esp. when some obscure paper recommends some supplement or procedure that is rather harmless. My ENT was into “Neti pots” when no one had ever heard of them and were mostly associated with hippies. So is it ok for doctors to try unproven procedures? If not, who exactly gets to make the new medical discoveries?

    In this case though, I’d say the medical staff was on board too … otherwise it’s pretty difficult to administer anything to someone in a coma in the hospital. If the parents had brought in a sacrificial chicken or an application of mercury paste, the story would be different. I do recall though, when parents were trying to bring in breast milk to feed their preemie babies … and were refused (“it’s not sterile”). Nowadays the neonatal units have breast-pumping stations and do all they can to get breastmilk to the babies. But it’s the parents that started the idea.

    Is testing fish oil on a kid worse than testing, say, the first rabies shot? Pasteur was considered one weird guy at the time.

    Virtually every infection with rabies resulted in death, until two French scientists, Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux, developed the first rabies vaccination in 1885. This vaccine was first used on a human on July 6, 1885, on nine-year-old Joseph Meister (1876–1940), who had been mauled by a rabid dog.
    Their vaccine consisted of a sample of the virus harvested from infected (and necessarily dead) rabbits, which was weakened by allowing it to dry for 5 to 10 days. Similar nerve tissue-derived vaccines are still used now in some countries, and while they are much cheaper than modern cell culture vaccines, they are not as effective.[citation needed] Neural tissue vaccines also carry a certain risk of neurological complications.


  29. February 11, 2014 at 8:37 AM

    There are VERY IMPORTANT REASONS why science is as strict as it is. Even after testing in RCTs, some drugs have shown long-term side effects. But the critical aspect of CONTROLLED trials is the control. By haphazard experimentation, you have no controls. You can introduce new complications and you have confounding variables. Control over variables is a core aspect of learning cause and effect. This can’t be done with self-experimentation alone. This self-experimentation ends up being an anecdote. Anecdotes may point us in the direction of where to look more carefully but they are poor evidence themselves.

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