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Multivitamin pill helps children think more accurately

If children take a daily supplement containing extra vitamins and minerals, their brains work in a more focused way. In psychological tests the children make fewer mistakes, researchers at Northumbria University concluded from an experiment involving eighty children between eight and fourteen.

The researchers gave their test subjects two Pharmaton Kiddi chew tablets daily for twelve weeks. The children took their tablets in the morning with their breakfast. The table below shows what the tablets contain.

Multivitamin pill helps children think more accurately

Soon after the children started taking the vitamins the researchers got them to do computer tests. The last test took place on the final day of the experiment, but the children were also tested a few times during the course of the experiment.

The most consistent – in fact the only consistent – effect that the researchers discovered was for a test in which an arrow pointing left or right appeared on the computer screen. If it pointed to the left, the children had to click on a symbol to the left of the arrow. If the arrow pointed right, they had to click to the right of it. The children had to repeat the action about eighty times.

The figure below shows how often the children clicked in the wrong direction. The dark bars represent the children who were taking the supplement. The white bars represent the children who got a placebo.

Multivitamin pill helps children think more accurately

Three hours after taking the vitamin pill the children already started to make fewer faults. The results were the same when the children did the test halfway through the experiment, and again when they repeated it after twelve weeks at the end of the experiment.

It sounds promising, but don't forget that the researchers did eight tests with the children for all sorts of mental functions, including reaction speed, memory and alertness. The Pharmaton pills had no effect on any of the other functions.

The researchers also got the children to fill in a questionnaire about how they were feeling. The children had to indicate whether they were "relaxed, alert, jittery, tired or tense", whether they had a headache, their general mood and whether they felt "mentally tired, happy or calm".

Out of the whole list of questions, there were no conclusive results. The vitamin pills had no effect – except that the children who took the tablets felt more or less jittery than the children who got a placebo.

The graph below shows the effects of the vitamins on how jittery the children felt twice during the test period. The first time the supplement group was more jittery than the placebo group, the second time it was the reverse.

Multivitamin pill helps children think more accurately

Altogether modest results. It's better than nothing, but hardly to argue in favour of a government programme to give schoolchildren a daily multivitamin tablet. This doesn't prevent the researchers from ending their article, which will soon appear in the British Journal of Nutrition, on a fairly pompous note: "Naturally, these observations require replication in larger cohorts, but they do suggest that this matter should be given some priority."

Sounds pretty confident. Or is it the hand of the study’s sponsor we can detect here? Which is – of course – Pharmaton, the manufacturer of the tablets tested.

Br J Nutr. 2008 May 29:1-11. [Epub ahead of print].