As a research assistant for a brain study, I had to get a test MRI. My scan went smoothly, but I still experienced some anxiety during the process. One of my panicked thoughts took me to the possibility of an aneurysm. What if I have one and it ruptures in these 30 minutes? I realized that my graduate superiors, even though they are accomplished researchers, are not health care professionals and would not be able to recognize my hypothetical brain injury.
Mental illness is often accompanied by other health issues, and the actual participants of these brain studies could have an undetected brain complication. If they do, my scanning team could easily send them home without alerting them to a concerning scan because we are not medical professionals.
All UT research with any kind of scanning protocol should involve a medical professional. A radiologist should be present while the scan is taking place and should review it after to see if there are any possible injurious or life-threatening complications the participant may be unaware of.
A 2016 Brain and Behavior study assessed participants’ interest and needs and the feasibility of a radiologist reviewing their brain scans. The study found that 34% of scans showed abnormalities of varying severities, and 2.5% of them required immediate medical attention. It also found that involving a radiologist would be expensive but feasible at most academic and medical institutions.
As of right now, UT only requires a radiologist review of clinical research scans, or scans that are done on populations with physical brain injuries. If this policy isn’t expanded to research scans done on mentally ill participants as well, the University is neglecting potential undetected health problems in the large population of human research subjects and participants.
Michelle Stickler, the assistant vice president for research and director of the Office of Research Support and Compliance, outlined the existing guidelines and implications of requiring a radiologist review.
“We don’t mandate that a radiologist be present across the board, especially for academic research targeting physically healthy populations, because we haven’t seen a need,” Stickler said, “Having a radiologist present would be feasible, but resource intensive.”
Researchers are not federally required to have nonclinical scans reviewed by a radiologist in the United States. But the practice of reviewing MRI research scans can be seen as an ethical necessity. UT should also implement this policy to avoid missing critical incidental findings on participants’ scans.
While the occurrence of incidental findings in academic research conducted on campus might be rare, the prospect itself warrants investing resources to have every research scan reviewed by a radiologist. UT should universalize this policy across all University research studies that involve brain scans to transcend any ethical gray area surrounding neglect of participant health.
Dronamraju is a public health sophomore from Dallas.