Ethical Implications of fMRI In Utero
|Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When my neuroethics mentor approached me with a publication from Trends in Cognitive Science called “Functional Connectivity of the Human Brain in Utero” (1) in hand, I was immediately delighted by the idea of performing an ethical analysis on the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) on fetuses in utero. As of right now, I’m still conducting this ethical analysis.
|Image courtesy of Flickr.
Using fMRI in utero would assist in providing an accurate picture of how brain connectivity develops and would give insight into when these areas become operational. Potentially, attributes like “sentient” and “conscious” could be accurately applied, or conversely, removed from fetuses at specific developmental stages. The idea of fetal sentience would perhaps change the conversation about the way fetuses are popularly considered. Killing a sentient creature isn’t a particularly savory thought, and recently it’s only been a best guess as to when a fetus becomes sentient (10). With fMRI leading the charge on understanding when structures in the brain connect to generate sentience, the exact moment when a fetus becomes sentient, or the developmental stages in which degrees of sentience appear may become clearer. This would inform everything from policy on abortion to women’s health care and fetal moral status. Beyond the observation of sentience, there is evidence that a connectivity difference may be seen in adults with neuropsychological disorders such as ADHD (4) and schizophrenia (5). If the underlying structures for brain connectivity are understood, these disorders may be predicted as early as in the womb, which would make fMRI a relevant diagnostic tool that could be used in utero.
|Image courtesy of Flickr.
However, my concern isn’t that in one iteration the temperature will cause developmental damage to the fetus; my concern is what happens to a fetus developmentally after multiple exposures and an irregular amount of heat exposure over a long period of time. Due to fetuses being mobile subjects, multiple iterations of a fMRI session may be needed to capture a specific developmental period and to capture the brain at many different parts of the developmental time frame. With all the exposure to fMRI heat, sound, and the stress the mother may accrue, precautions should be in place to prevent overexposure to these risks. Additionally, the informed consent document for this research should mention that there may be potential long-term risks to participating that are currently unknown and thus possibly unaccounted for.
Molly is an undergraduate psychology major, in her third year, at George Mason University. Her minor is neuroscience and she has been interested in neuroethics research since her second year. She has been conducting psychology research in multiple labs on campus since right after her first year. She hopes to someday explore the ethical implications that come about from AI creation and wants to explore this question from the viewpoint of what consciousness is and if it is a relevant aspect of moral status.
Want to cite this post?
Kluck, M. (2018). Ethical Implications of fMRI In Utero. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2018/05/ethical-implications-of-fmri-in-utero.html