Professor Michael Garwood (right) and colleague Ben Parkinson (left) pose standing on either side of the portable MRI machine.

National working group featuring MCC scientists releases landmark ethical guidance for new portable MRI brain research

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, has transformed neuroscience research and medical diagnoses over the past 50 years. During that time, research participants and patients alike have had to travel to the scanner. With the aim of making this diagnostic imaging tool more accessible to all, portable MRI (pMRI) technology has featured prominently in recent news and studies. As a result, in early June, a national working group composed of leaders from across the country—including MCC members Susan Wolf and Michael Garwood—has established urgently needed guidance on ethical, legal, and policy concerns raised by the rapidly emerging use of pMRI for brain research. 

Their expert analysis has been published in a new report in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, including 15 recommendations to address the ethical and legal challenges of research in partnership with communities that have not previously participated in brain research. University of Minnesota professors Susan Wolf—also an MCC member, Francis Shen, and Frances Lawrenz are lead authors of the article. 

“A new era in neuroscience research is dawning with the development of highly portable MRI scanners,” said Wolf. “Our research has anticipated the ethical, legal and social concerns posed by this rapidly evolving technology to promote appropriate use."

highly-accomplished working group, including MCC member Michael Garwood, (University of Minnesota), Damien Fair (UMN), Judy Illes (University of British Columbia), Paul Tuite (UMN), Jonathan Jackson (CRESCENT Advising), Donnella Comeau (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center), J. Thomas Vaughan (Columbia University), and Matthew Rosen (Harvard Medical School), provided in-depth analysis and concrete recommendations in the article. 

Here are some of their 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 increased use of 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 who do not 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. This research project is based at the University of Minnesota’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences, chaired by Susan Wolf and co-chaired by Francis Shen. The project findings were presented and debated in a December 2023 public conference on Emerging Portable Technology for Neuroimaging Research in New Field Settings: Legal & Ethical Challenges.

The Journal of Law and the Biosciences is a top legal journal at the intersections of law, the biosciences, and technological advances.

Please contact Jeff Holmquist, Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment, and the Life Sciences, at with any questions.