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Ethicists Decry Teen Alcohol Study

Researchers hoping to test how alcohol affects sleeping in teens are coming under fire from ethicists arguing that such research puts children at risk.

<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Brown University Medical School wants to study how drinking affects sleep by giving teenagers varying amounts of alcohol in a controlled setting, USA TODAY reported.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Previous studies have shown that alcohol disrupts sleep in adults and that sleep is important in healthy brain development for teens. Sponsors of the proposed teen alcohol study say the benefits of the research outweigh the risks.
 
“Learning more about sleep and alcohol during this critical developmental phase may help us understand more about teen drinking,” Mary Carskadon, head of the Sleep Research Laboratory at E.P. Bradley Hospital in East Providence, R.I., said on Join Together Online, a Boston University public health project. “We think the risks are quite low and the potential gains in terms of benefits to society, as well as to the young people who take part in the project, are significant.”
 
Critics of the proposed study disagree, however, saying it’s wrong to give alcohol to teenagers.
 
“As an ethicist, I have a problem with this study,” psychologist Celia Fisher, head of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education, told USA TODAY.
 
Because the research involves teens, federal law requires that Health and Human Services chief Tommy Thompson decide whether the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism will fund the research. So in April the federal Office for Human Research Protections asked the public to comment on the study. The period for public comment ended May 29.
 
The OHRP posted the requirements for such research on its Web site. The site describes the request from the Rhode Island Hospital’s Lifespan Office of Research Administration as proposing to study the effects of a “small or moderate evening dose of alcohol on sleep, waking performance, and circadian phase in a total of 64 adolescents (15 to 22 years of age).”
 
The researchers also propose to “examine how the effects may differ between individuals who have a parent with a history of alcohol dependence and those who do not,” according to the OHRP Web site.
 
The study would last for four weeks, with a heavily monitored five-night hospital stay.
 
Researchers have already received a waiver from the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General in order to give alcohol to minors.
 
Ethicist Fisher disputed Carskadon’s assertion that the study would benefit the teens actually involved. According to federal regulations, research involving adolescents must directly benefit the study participants.
 
Fisher also took issue with the $630 stipend awarded participants–a sum that might tempt teens to get involved in the research, she told USA TODAY.
 
Jodi Mathews is news writer for EthicsDaily.com.