Stephen Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research Fraud Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Stephen Breuning, a University of Pittsburgh medical researcher, studied the long-term effects of tranquilizers on the mentally disabled, especially adolescents. His findings caught the eye of his long-term mentor, who became suspicious of Breuning’s work and blew the whistle on him. After a federal investigation, Breuning was indicted and pleaded guilty to fraud. The case was particularly significant because it not only harmed vulnerable patients but also marked the first time an American scientist was prosecuted for falsifying research.

Summary of Event

On November 10, 1988, Stephen Breuning, one the nation’s leading researchers on the use of psychoactive drugs for the treatment of the mentally disabled, became the first academic in American history to be sentenced to prison for scientific research fraud. In addition, it was later determined by both federal investigators and academic researchers in the field that most of Breuning’s research starting from the mid-1970’s through the late 1980’s may have been fraudulent. [kw]Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research Fraud, Stephen (Sept. 19, 1988) [kw]Fraud, Stephen Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research (Sept. 19, 1988) Sprague, Robert Breuning, Stephen University of Pittsburgh Sprague, Robert Breuning, Stephen University of Pittsburgh [g]United States;Sept. 19, 1988: Stephen Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research Fraud[02370] [c]Drugs;Sept. 19, 1988: Stephen Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research Fraud[02370] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Sept. 19, 1988: Stephen Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research Fraud[02370] [c]Medicine and health care;Sept. 19, 1988: Stephen Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research Fraud[02370] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;Sept. 19, 1988: Stephen Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research Fraud[02370] [c]Education;Sept. 19, 1988: Stephen Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research Fraud[02370] [c]Science and technology;Sept. 19, 1988: Stephen Breuning Pleads Guilty to Medical Research Fraud[02370] Wilcox, Breckenridge

The major portion of Breuning’s work concerned studies of drug-treatment therapies for mentally disabled persons who were institutionalized. In particular, most of his research participants suffered from extreme emotional, behavioral, and neurological disorders that were treated with various psychoactive drugs to control hyperactivity and violent behavior. In fact, it was quite common to see half of all residents at mental institutions throughout the United States prescribed certain types of drugs, mainly powerful tranquilizers to reduce any aggressive outbursts. The most commonly prescribed drugs for these patients had traditionally been antipsychotic drugs known as tranquilizers.

Breuning, along with a small group of his fellow clinicians, argued against the use of major tranquilizers for the mentally disabled, especially for adolescent patients. The main argument against the drug’s use centered on the numerous and unpleasant side effects from using large doses over a long period of time. One major side effect was a neurological disorder known as tardive dyskinesia. This disorder causes abnormal and sometimes extreme, involuntary muscle movements of the body. Bruening and his colleagues believed that tranquilizers could be substituted with certain types of stimulant drugs, thus lowering the risk of disorders such as tardive dyskinesia.

After receiving his doctorate from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1977, Breuning worked for one year as a research psychologist at the Oakdale Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities in Lapeer, Michigan. In 1978, he transferred to the Coldwater Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities (now the Coldwater Regional Mental Health Center), also in Michigan, and established himself as a researcher deeply dedicated to working with the mentally disabled. One year later, in 1979, Robert Sprague, director of the Institute for Child Behavior and Development at the University of Illinois, noticed the work of a team of young scholars at the Coldwater facility, especially the work of Breuning. Sprague had recently received a $200,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and was looking to move his research laboratory to a place such as Coldwater, where he could enlist the services of hardworking researchers. He also wanted to continue his extremely valuable research on disorders such as tardive dyskinesia.

Sprague received approval from the Coldwater Center and invited Breuning to take the lead as one of the primary researchers. Over a two year period, Breuning wrote many manuscripts summarizing the work of his team at Coldwater. His findings not only were astounding but also likely to revolutionize the way the medical world treated mentally disabled patients: if those findings were genuine. In January, 1981, Breuning was employed as an assistant professor of child psychiatry at the prestigious Western Psychiatric Institute at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. During this time, he continued to collaborate with Sprague on various projects, including many funded by Sprague’s original NIMH grant.

Sprague’s suspicions of Breuning began in 1983. Breuning was a prolific author and coauthor, and his research produced near-perfect results. Indeed, his publications were making him a rising star in psychology. Between 1980 and 1984, he was part of nearly one-third of all the psycho-pharmaceutical, peer-reviewed studies regarding the effect of certain psychotropic drugs on the mentally disabled, especially adolescents. His findings had a considerable effect on the drug-treatment therapies used to manage these patients’ behaviors in institutions throughout the United States, which makes his research fraud so significant.

In September, 1983, Sprague traveled to Pittsburgh to meet with Breuning to discuss research projects and the NIMH grant. It was during this trip that Sprague discovered that Breuning was obtaining far-fetched results in a study involving nurse ratings of patients with tardive dyskinesia. This realization led him to launch his own investigation of Breuning. In December, he confronted Breuning with his evidence, questioning him about his supposed follow-up study at Coldwater after taking the research position at Pittsburgh. Breuning claimed that he examined patients for two years after his departure. Sprague knew that Breuning had never returned to Coldwater, nor did he leave assistants to conduct the alleged examinations. Afer Breuning failed to produce evidence to counter the allegations, Sprague notified the NIMH in late December with a six-page letter. In January, 1984, the NIMH notified the University of Pittsburgh and then began its own independent investigation. In April, Breuning resigned from Pittsburgh to take a position at Polk Center, the largest state institution for the mentality disabled in Pennsylvania.

In 1985, the NIMH selected a council of five well-known scholars to investigate Breuning’s work. After a lengthy investigation, the council concluded that on numerous occasions, while employed both at Coldwater and at Pittsburgh and while using federal grant monies, Breuning had committed “serious scientific misconduct.” The council, which also questioned the veracity of Breuning’s entire corpus of research, recommended that he be banned for ten years from receiving federal research grants. The council also recommended that the U.S. Department of Justice look into prosecuting Breuning because his research may have impacted the health and well-being of hundreds of people, many of whom were children at the time they were studied.

Breckenridge Wilcox, U.S. attorney for the state of Maryland, where Breuning’s grant money originated, agreed with the NIMH council’s recommendation and commenced a federal investigation. On April 16, 1988, a federal grand jury indicted Breuning on three criminal counts related to submitting fraudulent research results to a federal agency, marking the first time in American history that an independent research scientist was indicted for scientific fraud. On September 19, in a plea bargain with prosecutors, Breuning pleaded guilty and was convicted on two charges of filing false reports; the third, more serious, charge was dropped as part of the deal.

On November 10, Breuning was sentenced to five years probation and six days in a halfway house and was ordered to perform 250 hours of community service. He also was ordered to repay $11,352 to the NIMH and prohibited from conducting psychological research while on probation. The University of Pittsburgh was ordered to pay back about $163,000 in funds that Breuning had unlawfully used.


Breuning’s empirical studies were outright deceptions. If not for the vigilance of his mentor, the deception likely would have continued and countless people with disabilities would have been further harmed. So wide-ranging was his fraudulent research that he became the first American academic to go to prison because of the untruthfulness of his work. His studies, fraudulent as they were, nevertheless had a major impact on the scientific disciplines of psychology and psychiatry and influenced health care policies for treating the mentally disabled. Some states even modified their health care guidelines for drug-treatment therapies for the mentally disabled based specifically on Breuning’s research.

It should also be noted that the results of Breuning’s fraudulent research during the 1980’s played a primary role in increasing the rate of prescriptions for stimulant drugs such as Ritalin for treating children with hyperactivity disorders. Thousands of medical doctors throughout the United States still prescribe these stimulants at alarming rates for the treatment of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. The stimulants are still used for treatment even in the face of many clinical trials that debunked Breuning’s research claims. Sprague, Robert Breuning, Stephen University of Pittsburgh

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shamoo, Adil, and David Resnik. Responsible Conduct of Research. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A comprehensive study of the various ethical issues in biomedical research. Includes a time line of Breuning’s falsifications.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sprague, Robert L. “Whistleblowing: A Very Unpleasant Avocation.” Ethics and Behavior 3, no. 1 (March, 1993): 103-133. First-person account of the scandal by Breuning’s mentor and former boss. Sprague writes that the article has a particular “focus on the great reluctance of universities and federal agencies to investigate vigorously an alleged case of scientific misconduct when it involves members of their own faculties or grant recipients.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wible, James. The Economics of Science: Methodology and Epistemology as if Economics Really Mattered. New York: Routledge, 1998. This book offers a unique look at science from an economic perspective. In particular, it examines in detail various cases of scientific fraud.

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Categories: History