National Working Group Releases Landmark Ethical Guidance for New Portable MRI Brain Research

Martinos News

MRI has transformed neuroscience research over the past 50 years, but research participants have had to travel to the scanner. With the advent of highly portable magnetic resonance imaging (pMRI), including pioneering work at the Martinos Center, the scanner will now come to them. This portable technology will allow for more inclusive research with new communities and will enable researchers without access to conventional MRI to study the brain.

A new report, produced by a national working group including Martinos researchers and collaborators and published in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, provides urgently needed guidance on ethical, legal, and policy concerns raised by the rapidly emerging use of pMRI for brain research.

Authors of the consensus publication, “Ethical, Legal, and Policy Challenges in Field-Based Neuroimaging Research Using Emerging Portable MRI Technologies: Guidance for Investigators and for Oversight,” developed 15 recommendations to address the ethical and legal challenges of research in partnership with communities that have not previously participated in brain research. Lead authors of the article are University of Minnesota professors Francis Shen, JD, PhD, Susan Wolf, JD, and Frances Lawrenz, PhD.

Dr. Shen also teaches Law, Ethics & Neuroscience and other courses at Harvard Medical School and collaborates with the Martinos Center on the REACH for BRAIN project (Recruitment, Engagement, and Access for Community Health Equity for BRAIN Next-Generation Human Neuroimaging Research and Beyond).

“Highly portable MRI can transform neuroscience research and improve access for rural, economically disadvantaged, and historically underrepresented populations,” he says. “But this promise will not be realized if needed ethical and legal guardrails are missing.”

In the publication, a blue-ribbon working group including the Martinos Center’s Matthew Rosen, PhD, among others, offers in-depth analysis and concrete recommendations. Dr. Rosen is director of the Low-field MRI and Hyperpolarized Media Laboratory at the Center and co-founder of Hyperfine Research, which has introduced a portable MRI scanner into clinical practice. Among the working group’s key findings:

– pMRI scanners can enable new research partnerships with previously underrepresented communities in remote locations, and investigators designing research should partner with the local communities in which research will occur.

– New guidelines and training are urgently needed for safe use of pMRI in field settings, including robust standards for participant privacy and data security.

– The utilization of artificial intelligence by pMRI to generate images and to interpret the meaning of those images should be carefully evaluated and explained to participants in the informed consent process.

– The emergence of citizen scientists using pMRI technology will advance the study of neuroscience in new and exciting ways. It will also require safeguards, such as those now provided by traditional institutional review and oversight.

– Questions remain about how to convey incidental medical findings from pMRI to participants who may not have insurance coverage or live in proximity to advanced medical facilities to access the clinical evaluation and treatment they need.

Development of the report was funded by a $1.6 million 4-year grant from the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative.