MRI scanner

Incidental findings

New techniques and developments in brain imaging can raise tricky ethical questions

Imagine your friend is doing a PhD and you have volunteered to participate in a brain scanning study as part of her research.

You visit her in the lab and she gives you instructions about what you need to do while she scans your brain. When the results come in, your friend’s supervisor looks at your scans and spots something abnormal. What should she do?

This happens to a small number of people. In 2009, neurologists reviewed the results of 31 MRI studies carried out between 1950 and 2008, involving about 35,000 people. According to their results, abnormalities were found in up to 1 in 50 people who had their brains scanned for a non-diagnostic reason. These were more common in older people and included several different types of brain tumours, as well as abnormalities in blood vessels that might indicate an increased risk of stroke.

A similar situation is found in genetics research. The cost of DNA sequencing has decreased significantly in recent years, and it is now common for researchers to sequence and compare the entire genomes of many thousands of people. As a result, they are more likely to identify genetic mutations and variations that predispose people to certain diseases or behaviours.

Questions for discussion

  • Do researchers have a duty to share this kind of information with you?
  • Would you want to know if your brain scan revealed an abnormality?
  • Often, people participate in scientific research anonymously, so the researchers don’t know whose results they are analysing. Is this right?
  • What should guidelines suggest should be done when researchers think they have found something unusual about one of their participants?

Lead image:

An MRI scanner.

Matthias Weinberger/Flickr CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Inside the Brain’ in January 2013 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Inside the Brain
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development