An Ethical Roadmap for Breakthrough MRI Technology

Imagine getting a brain scan without ever having to go to a lab. Michael Garwood, PhD, Malcolm B. Hanson Professor of Radiology, and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research are working to make it a reality through the development of a lower cost, portable, cloud-connected MRI machine that could accelerate research into brain injuries and mental disorders.

“Instead of participants traveling to the scanner, the scanner will come to them,” said Francis Shen, JD, PhD, professor at the UMN Law School, faculty member in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, and a faculty affiliate in the University’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences. “This will allow acquisition of brain data in remote field settings across a wide variety of research designs with more diverse participants. It will allow researchers greater ability to reach rural, economically disadvantaged, and racial and ethnic minority populations that are currently underrepresented in neuroimaging research and a priority for NIH research.”

As this promising technology moves closer to completion, a different team of UMN researchers is hard at work on a related project—ensuring that development and deployment of this new device is guided by ethical analysis. This interdisciplinary team of experts, based at the Consortium on Law and Values, is combining insights from neuroscience, law, and ethics to establish guidelines for the use of the portable MRI system. In addition to Shen, who serves as lead principal investigator, the project is led by Susan Wolf, JD, chair of the Consortium and McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine & Public Policy; and Frances Lawrenz, PhD, associate vice president for research and professor of educational psychology in the College of Education and Human Development.

The project is supported by a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the Neuroethics Division of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health.

By paving the way for MRI research outside of hospitals and university research centers, portable scanners could diversify neuroscience participant populations, improve researchers’ understanding of brain development and degeneration across the lifespan in diverse populations, and help to create reliable measurements of infant and childhood development.

“These deeper understandings can lead to new strategies to help remote communities mitigate and hopefully overcome challenges that negatively impact brain development and quality of life,” said Wolf. “Ultimately, portable MRI systems could improve the timeliness and quality of clinical diagnosis and treatment around the globe.”

The team will devise guidance on a number of ethical challenges, such as ensuring that individuals can give informed consent to participate in studies, maintaining the privacy of MRI-collected data, and addressing potential biases that may arise in the use of artificial intelligence to analyze the data. Researchers must also set guidelines for how to convey to participants their own incidental findings and the results of a study in a culturally appropriate and scientifically accurate way that they can understand.

The project recognizes the importance of grappling with the ethical and legal considerations of emerging technologies before they are put to use. As part of their research, the team will survey a sample of the national population to ensure they consider the views of rural residents, adults over the age of 65, minority populations, and economically disadvantaged sub-populations.

The project’s working group will include experts from across the University, including Michael Garwood, PhD, Department of Radiology and CMRR; Damien Fair, PhD, Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, Institute of Child Development, and Department of Pediatrics; Paul Tuite, MD, Department of Neurology; and J. Riley McCarten, MD, Department of Neurology.

“This allows for development of the technology to be informed by ethical issues,” said Shen. “It also allows regulations and ethical frameworks to be developed in partnership with a diverse set of stakeholders, including those from underserved communities.”