Ethics Panel Urges Scrutiny of Mental Health Research

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Brushing aside research agencies' worries about increasing regulation, a presidential panel today called for tighter control of the way mental patients and other people with impaired judgment are enrolled in drug tests and experiments that don't directly benefit them.

In a final report, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) urged the federal government to create a new standing committee to act as a kind of permanent rulemaker and appeals board in this field. In addition, NBAC proposes that the Institute of Medicine conduct a thorough study of the ethics and science of controversial types of mental health research--including trials in which patients are exposed to "challenges" that exaggerate their symptoms or in which medication is abruptly withdrawn. NBAC seeks to involve guardians and patient advocates more directly in the research approval process.

The National Institutes of Health objected last month that some of these recommendations would impede research (Science, 30 October 1998, p. 857). But NBAC's chair, Princeton University President Harold Shapiro, disagrees. He says he's heard "many assertions" but seen "no convincing evidence" that research would be hurt by such changes. Instead, he says, reform "will encourage greater support for this research in the long term."