A controversial study on transgender people’s neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has been suspended due to ethical concerns that the participants could face harm from the study itself.
Dr. Jamie Feusner, the principal investigator in the study, has paused the National Institute of Health-backed study to get more input from transgender people and “understand their concerns more deeply and have a dialogue about the study’s objectives.”
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The study, according to reports of people who participated in focus groups to help researchers construct it, was supposed to be about the effects of gender dysphoria on a person’s brain.
Gender dysphoria is the medical term for the distress a person feels because their gender identity doesn’t align with their sex assigned at birth. The experience is psychologically painful and associated with depression, anxiety, social isolation, and an increased risk of suicide attempts.
The Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior study was going to trigger gender dysphoria in participants and then use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan their brains to better understand the condition.
“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,” said Gender Justice LA Executive Director Ezak Perez in a statement. “This research design unapologetically aims to cause mental health distress to trigger ‘dysphoria’ to an already marginalized and vulnerable community.”
The group also said that the research could be used to push conversion therapy on transgender people.
“The researchers claim that their study can help TGI people, but their own research materials and publications suggested that they are developing tools that may curtail access to gender-affirming treatment,” the statement says, adding that the study could be used “for the creation of therapeutics to treat gender dysphoria as one would treat anorexia” and that it “opens the door for advancing the highly disregarded and dangerous practice of conversion therapy.”
In a letter dated January 27, 2021, the California LGBTQ Health and Human Services Network urged transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex people to stay away from the study, calling it “harmful.”
“We object to the view that transgender people have an aberrant body image condition or that brain imaging of traumatic response could ultimately ‘help’ trans people,” the group said in the letter. “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. At a time in which trans lives are under attack, we find this kind of research to be misguided and dangerous.”
The institute said that Dr. Feusner is voluntarily suspending the study for the moment to get more input on it.
“The ultimate hope of this study is that it will lead to improved quality of life for those who identify as transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming and a better understanding of the effects of hormones on the brain,” a spokesperson for UCLA Health 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.”