MPs and campaigners predict class action after failures to mount full-scale research into warnings left millions of patients at risk. Nina Lakhani reports IoS investigation Tranquilliser addiction in Britain
Secret documents reveal that government-funded experts were warned nearly 30 years ago that tranquillisers that were later prescribed to millions of people could cause brain damage.
The Medical Research Council (MRC) agreed in 1982 that there should be large-scale studies to examine the long-term impact of benzodiazepines after research by a leading psychiatrist showed brain shrinkage in some patients similar to the effects of long- term alcohol abuse.
However, no such work was ever carried out into the effects of drugs such as Valium, Mogadon and Librium - and doctors went on prescribing them to patients for anxiety, stress, insomnia and muscle spasms.
MPs and lawyers described the documents as a scandal, and predicted they could lead the way to a class action costing millions. There are an estimated 1.5 million "involuntary addicts" in the UK, and scores display symptoms consistent with brain damage.
The MRC hosted a meeting of eminent experts and government representatives in 1981 after research by Malcolm Lader, now emeritus professor of the Institute of Psychiatry, showed brain shrinkage occurred in some benzodiazepine patients.
Recommendations to carry out studies to examine long-term problems associated with these drugs, which GPs prescribed more than 20 million times last year, were accepted by the MRC Neurosciences Board in January 1982.
But then the trail goes dead. The documents, which have been seen by The Independent on Sunday and were marked "closed until 2014", do not make it clear why no work to test Professor Lader's findings properly was ever funded. The Department of Health has no record of the meeting.
Jim Dobbin, the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction, said: "Many victims have lasting physical, cognitive and psychological problems even after they have withdrawn. We are seeking legal advice because we believe these documents are the bombshell they have been waiting for. The MRC must justify why there was no proper follow-up to Professor Lader's research, no safety committee, no study, nothing to further explore the results. We are talking about a huge scandal here."
Catherine Hopkins, the legal director of Action against Medical Accidents, added: "The failure to carry out research into the effect of benzodiazepines has exposed huge numbers of people to the risk of brain damage. This research urgently needs to be carried out, and if the results confirm the suspicions of the 1981 expert group, it could lead to one of the biggest group actions for damages against the Government and the MRC ever seen in the courts."
Initially advertised as completely harmless, benzodiazepines ("benzos") were touted as the world's first wonder drug in the 1960s. Within a decade they became the UK's most commonly used medication.
Current guidelines for doctors say they should be prescribed for a maximum of four weeks. But some people become "involuntarily addicted" within days, unable to stop without withdrawal symptoms such as burning sensations, distorted vision, headaches and even fatal seizures.
Some patients who have taken the pills for months or years have enduring neurological pain, headaches, cognitive impairment and memory loss. But 30 years after the MRC first considered the idea, there is no medical research to confirm whether this is down to drug- induced brain damage or not.
Professor Lader said yesterday: "The results didn't surprise us because we already knew long-term alcohol use could cause permanent brain changes. There should have been a really good, large-scale study but I was never given the …