Researchers trying to find ways to treat schizophrenia gave more than 100 healthy people a powerful hallucinogen without fully informing them that the drug could potentially produce psychotic episodes, The Boston Globe reported Thursday.
The studies involved the drug ketamine, also known as "Special K" and considered a "date-rape" drug because of the stupor-like condition it can cause.
The Globe said the studies, which began in 1994, involved both mentally ill and healthy people, and participants often were not told they were being given ketamine specifically to induce conditions similar to schizophrenia.
Ketamine is available by prescription only, and was approved by the Food and Drug Administration as an anesthetic. Its primary use is as an animal tranquilizer.
Healthy people given the drug reported feelings of floating, having a radio in the ear, tearfulness and sad moods and feelings of "life and death at the same time," the Globe said.
The possibility of long-term harm from drug-induced psychosis is less likely in healthy people, but there is a possibility of flashbacks months later, according to the report.
Disclosure is important because there is the possibility of "hooking someone" on the drug, said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Experiments were done primarily at the National Institute of Mental Health at Bethesda, Md., or facilities financed by the institute, such as medical schools at Yale University and New York University.
The NIMH's institutional review board approved the studies.
"This is a medicine which is given under close scrutiny for a short-term basis. There is no repeat, long-term exposure," said Dr. Trey Sunderland, chairman of the review board. As a result, he said, ketamine's street use is "not an issue in these studies."
Sunderland said consent forms mentions that "you might get an altered mood, hallucinations...The main side effects of the medication are listed in black and white."
Dr. John Krystal, a Yale psychiatry professor, said he began using ketamine because old literature showed it might model symptoms and problems of schizophrenia and give new insights into treatment.
He said subjects in his early studies were not told that ketamine was used as a street drug. He said he did not have recent consent forms to show what participants are told now. But he said, "People who participate are made aware that it has effects on mood that may make some people want to use it."