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Controversial mental health study folds

No headway: a mental health study that involved monitoring people, including babies, for 20 years has been dropped

(Keystone)

A pioneering mental health study involving 3,000 Swiss households has been abandoned after not enough participants could be found.

The study was the centrepiece of a national research project, the Swiss Etiological Study of Adjustment and Mental Health (Sesam), which had been the subject of fierce opposition from the start.

The project's executive committee informed the Swiss National Science Foundation, which had funded just under half of the study, of the discontinuation on Thursday. Smaller side studies would however carry on, it said.

Sesam, a worldwide first, was approved as a national centre of competence in research by the government in 2005.

The aim had been to collect data on participants' mental health by observing them over 20 years, taking into account biological, social and psychological factors.

Children taking part in the project would have come under special scrutiny – from 12 weeks after conception. Scientists know that many mental and psychiatric problems have their origin in childhood, but they do not necessarily know why.

However, as the project leaders explained on Thursday, it would have been impossible to recruit several thousand participants within two years and as a result the study, in its conceived form, could not be carried out.

The project was based in Basel, with researchers also in Geneva, Lausanne, Bern and Zurich. It turned out that in Basel only two dozen mothers had agreed to take part.

"Giant flop"

The Sesam project faced objections right from the beginning.

In 2006 the Basel Campaign against Gene Technology submitted a petition with 12,000 signatures against the project, claiming it had serious legal and ethical flaws.

The association was particularly concerned about the analysis of children's genes, pointing out that children could not give permission for their DNA to be examined and researched.

In March 2007 the joint ethics committee of cantons Basel City and Basel Country decided that genetic analysis could only take place after the age of 18 with the participants' full agreement and a complete presentation of the benefits and disadvantages.

On Thursday the Basel Campaign against Gene Technology spoke of an expensive "giant flop" and said it hoped the National Science Foundation would "learn a lesson from this unbelievably bad investment of public money".

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Sesam aimed to follow 3,000 families over 20 years, trying to identify the parameters of psychological development during a person's life.

Children were to have been included in the study 12 weeks after conception.

The project was run by Basel University, but included researchers from Bern, Zurich, Geneva and Lausanne.

Sesam's budget for the first four years was SFr22.8 million ($18.8 million) with slightly less than half coming from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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