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Open Access Research article

Untapped ethical resources for neurodegeneration research

Julie M Robillard1, Carole A Federico1, Kate Tairyan1, Adrian J Ivinson2 and Judy Illes1*

Author Affiliations

1 National Core for Neuroethics, Division of Neurology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

2 Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA

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BMC Medical Ethics 2011, 12:9  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-12-9

Published: 2 June 2011

Abstract

Background

The research community has a mandate to discover effective treatments for neurodegenerative disorders. The ethics landscape surrounding this mandate is in a constant state of flux, and ongoing challenges place ever greater demands on investigators to be accountable to the public and to answer questions about the implications of their work for health care, society, and policy.

Methods

We surveyed US-based investigators involved in neurodegenerative diseases research about how they value ethics-related issues, what motivates them to give consideration to those issues, and the barriers to doing so. Using the NIH CRISP database we identified 1,034 researchers with relevant, active grants and invited them to complete an online questionnaire. We received 193 responses. We used exploratory factor analysis to transform individual survey questions into a smaller set of factors, and linear regression to understand the effect of key variables of interest on the factor scores.

Results

Ethics-related issues clustered into two groups: research ethics and external influences. Heads of research groups viewed issues of research ethics to be more important than the other respondents. Concern about external influences was related to overall interest in ethics. Motivators clustered into five groups: ensuring public understanding, external forces, requirements, values, and press and public. Heads of research groups were more motivated to ensure public understanding of research than the other respondents. Barriers clustered into four groups: lack of resources, administrative burden, relevance to the research, and lack of interest. Perceived lack of ethics resources was a particular barrier for investigators working in drug discovery.

Conclusions

The data suggest that senior level neuroscientists working in the field of neurodegeneration (ND), and drug discovery specifically, are motivated to consider ethics issues related to their work, but the perceived lack of ethics resources thwarts their efforts. With bioethics centres at more than 50% of the institutions at which these respondents reside, the neuroscience and bioethics communities appear to be disconnected. Dedicated ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) programs, such as those fully integrated into genetics and regenerative medicine, provide models for achieving meaningful partnerships not yet adequately realized for scholars and trainees interested in drug discovery for ND.