Impact of in-patient research participation on subsequent heroin use patterns: implications for ethics and public health


Sandra D. Comer, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, 1051 Riverside Drive, Unit 120, New York, NY 10032, USA. E-mail:


Aims  Research on drug dependence often involves the administration of drugs of abuse to experienced drug users under controlled laboratory conditions. The primary objective of this study was to assess whether participation in such research alters the frequency of heroin use by non-treatment-seeking opioid-dependent volunteers after study completion.

Design  Data were examined from four in-patient studies involving controlled opioid administration.

Setting  Substance Use Research Center at Columbia University, New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Participants  Sixty-nine heroin-dependent volunteers.

Measurements  Participants' self-reported heroin use prior to and 1 month after study participation was compared using a Wilcoxon test. Because a number of participants reported that they had stopped using heroin, a logistic regression was used to identify correlates of heroin cessation 1 month after study completion.

Findings  One hundred and one participants entered laboratory studies and 69 completed them. Self-reported heroin use significantly decreased 1 month after study participation [1.7 (±2.0) bags per day] compared to baseline [6.8 (±4.2) bags per day], P < 0.001 among the 69 completers. In addition, 42% of the completers were heroin-abstinent 1 month after study completion. Being African American, having a history of opioid dependence treatment, reporting heavier heroin use at baseline and a longer history of heroin use were correlated with cessation of heroin use.

Conclusions  Participation in opioid administration studies does not increase subsequent heroin use and for some individuals leads to accessing opioid dependence treatment and cessation of heroin use in the short term.