Brain imaging study paused over LGBTQ+ advocates' concerns

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Criticism from LGBTQ+ organisations has put a halt, at least temporarily, to a US National Institute of Health-backed imaging study amid “grave concerns” about what they describe as “unethical” research design, reports Radiology Business.

The University of California, Los Angeles  study was set up to explore the neurological and genetic factors that contribute to the development of one’s transgender identity. As part of the effort, they’re recruiting self-identified trans and cisgender individuals between the ages of 18-40 to undergo MRI scans and have their pictures taken.

But groups such as the Gender Justice LA are sceptical of the investigation’s intent and have been pushing for a pause. The effort’s principal investigator, meanwhile, is obliging, while also considering modifications following the backlash.

“This study’s stated purpose is to trigger ‘gender dysphoria’ by taking photographs of participants’ bodies in tight clothing (unitards), and specifically people who have not had access to affirming medical transition,” Ezak Perez, executive director of the grassroots group, said, adding that it will “cause mental health distress” among an “already marginalised and vulnerable community.”

“The researchers are falsely advertising this study without clarity about the expectations of participants and without consideration of the need for direct access to mental health after care,” wrote Perez and Dannie Cesena, programme manager of LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network.

UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour reportedly reached out to members of the South California trans, gender-nonconforming and intersex community in December. Their aim was to gather feedback on the MR Imaging and ways to make it more inclusive. But after its members participated in such focus groups, Gender Justice LA and the California LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network began circling a letter urging people to stay away.

In a statement, the Los Angeles institution said it takes seriously its responsibility to conduct research that “respects study participants and is sensitive to the broader cultural context.” Following the blowback, principal investigator Dr Jamie Feusner – a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences – is  voluntarily pausing the study. He plans to gather further input from the LGBTQ community to “understand their concerns more deeply and have a dialogue about the study’s objectives.”

Leaders will also consider whether to revise the investigation’s design, said Phil Hampton, a spokesperson for UCLA Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine.

“The ultimate hope of this study is that it will lead to improved quality of life for those who identify as transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming and a better understanding of the effects of hormones on the brain,” he told Radiology Business. “UCLA believes partnership with our diverse communities is essential to performing research that is culturally aware, socially responsible, improves quality of life and advances our public service mission.”

The call for participants on the Semel Institute's website states that researchers were looking for transgender, nonbinary, and cisgender adults between the ages of 18 and 40 to complete an assessment and one or more MRI scans. Participants would also be "photographed from the neck down while wearing a unitard," a point of contention cited by Perez in his statement. The enrolment announcement also noted that participants who experience discomfort during this process could withdraw from the study at any point.

Researchers also required that participants not be on any psychiatric medications, and that trans and nonbinary participants could not already be on hormone therapy or have had gender-affirming surgery. The UCLA Semel Institute website said participants would be paid $110 to $210 and travel expenses would be subsidized.

The study in question would use the "body morph'" test, designed by Feusner and fellow researchers in 2015. During the test, transgender and cisgender participants are photographed from various angles in a nude-coloured, full-body unitard. After faces, hands, and feet are cropped from the images, photographs of participants' bodies are morphed with pictures of different bodies from a variety of angles, amounting to the production of 62 unique images per participant.

In their letter to UCLA, Perez and Cesena strongly objected to the idea that such brain imaging – capturing the neurological response of gender dysphoria – could provide any scientific data that could "help" trans people in the future.

"It is suggestive of a search for medical 'cure,' which can open the door for more gatekeeping and restrictive policies and practices in relation to access to gender-affirming care," the letter stated.

Feusner and Savic-Berglund, however, explained that "by demonstrating that body-self incongruence was linked to brain structure and function, we aimed to help provide a biological basis and increase empathy for the life stories of transgender individuals. From the beginning, the aim was to help increase acceptance of transgender individuals."


Full Radiology Business report (Open access)


Gender Justice Statement


Semel Institute research details



See also MedicalBrief archives:

Academic medicine must step up with LGBTQ patients

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