Saturday, February 02, 2008

Academic Horror Story

Researchers didn't inform student about "large mass" they detected in her brain:

About two years ago, a UC Berkeley undergraduate was a subject in an MRI experiment on the Berkeley campus. She did it for the money: It paid $200 for two two-hour sessions, during which you lie motionless inside a large loud machine. During the first session, the persons monitoring the experiment could see that something was seriously wrong: The subject had a large mass in her brain. Clearly her life was at risk. But they didn’t tell her immediately what they had seen. (Later they claimed they “couldn’t” have told her, for legal reasons. A friend of hers who was present at the experiment was threatened with serious legal action if he told her.) Instead, they sought outside opinion about what the mass was and what to do about it. A few weeks later, they told her about it. “Sometimes unusual things show up on these scans” she was told. This was incorrect: Nothing like this had happened before at UC Berkeley.

In a way, the story has a happy ending. The large mass turned out to be benign (but at the time of the experiment they had no way of knowing that). It was removed. A year and a half after the operation, there are no signs of reoccurrence.

The experimenters not only (a) withheld what might have been life-saving information, (b) they persisted in this behavior after having time to think about it; and (c) they threatened someone who wanted to do the right thing. This is no momentary lapse in judgment. The experimenters — including the professor in charge and who knows what other powerful people at UC Berkeley — actively did the wrong thing. They carefully decided not to tell her info that might have saved her life.

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