February 1997

Research With Cognitively Impaired SubjectsUnfinished Business in the Regulation of Human Research

Author Affiliations

From the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1997;54(2):105-111. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1997.01830140013002

In 1978, the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research issued an important report that addressed the difficult ethical issues arising in research involving subjects with mental disabilities. However, because of irreconcilable conflicts between the scientific community and rights-oriented advocacy groups, the federal government never issued the special regulations pertaining to these issues that had been envisioned by the National Commission. Because these important ethical issues have not yet been adequately addressed by policy-making bodies, protection of cognitively impaired subjects depends too heavily on the diverse ethical sensitivities of individual investigators and on ad hoc responses of particular institutional review boards. Researchers should support a credible and authoritative process for reexamining and resolving ethical issues relating to research with cognitively impaired subjects. This can be accomplished without leading to the stalemate that doomed the National Commission's proposals. The challenge is to forge a consensus on ethical guidelines and safeguards that will most reasonably accommodate the goals of protecting the dignity and well-being of research subjects while avoiding undue impediments to valuable scientific inquiry.