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Study Stalled After Harm to Transgender Participants

Examining scientific and ethical justifications for inducing gender dysphoria.

There is a long history of biologically driven attempts to erase the LGBTQ community. From one of the earliest purposes of deep brain stimulation technology to restricting transgender identities based on biological evidence. While many see these as issues of the past, a recent study at UCLA sought to not only “cure” transgender people but triggered participants’ gender dysphoria to examine this possibility.

Dr. Jamie Feusner, at the University of California Los Angeles Brain Research Institute, uses brain imaging to examine how individuals perceive their bodies. To do this, researchers take images of the brain while participants are engaged in specific tasks. For example, to examine brain regions associated with perceiving ones’ own body, participants may be shown pictures of themselves and neutral pictures. Differences between the brain images collected while viewing these different pictures can indicate brain regions associated with seeing oneself.

Brain imaging work has already suggested gender experience and brain function are linked. Individuals with gender dysphoria display weaker connections between two brain regions, the first detecting one’s body and the second perceiving one’s body as part of oneself. While an oversimplification, one might see this as connecting what our body looks like to what we think our body looks like.

Dr. Feusner has performed his own research on the connection between these body perception regions and gender dysphoria. Along with fellow researchers, he used images to manipulate gender dysphoria by having pre-transition transgender men (those already experiencing gender dysphoria) view masculinized versions of themselves. This increased activity between these regions. In spite of this evidence, it remains unclear whether these connections are directly related to the experience of gender dysphoria specifically.

Perhaps these association areas are functioning correctly in transgender individuals, i.e. activating weakly and showing little development because the body and identity of transgender folks may be at odds. So, manipulating the circuit may simply alter whether or how someone experiences their gender instead of alleviating gender dysphoria.

Differences in the social experiences of transgender and cisgender individuals may guide differences in how we respond to gender-related stimuli, like images. Additionally, efforts to avoid perceiving one’s own body may lead to the disuse and degradation of this pathway in some individuals. These alternative hypotheses exist because manipulating experience and examining the brain circuit itself is only evidence of a region’s involvement with the entire task participants are experiencing.

The recently ended study does not address a significant number of these alternative hypotheses nor is it a particularly novel paradigm. Instead, the researchers are hoping to study this circuit by inducing gender dysphoria in transgender individuals while imaging their brains. Having already examined the brain while manipulating the gender dysphoria participants were already experiencing, I cannot imagine why this new paradigm to induce an artificial gender dysphoric state was necessary given the potential for harm.

Gender dysphoria induces mental health distress in transgender individuals that would extend beyond the experiment. An organization advocating for individuals who already participated indicates that no plan to address the harm caused by the procedure was provided and the potential for harm was not made clear. Supporting a study that directly harms transgender individuals and would only support previously identified phenomenon goes against my understanding of responsible research.

When I seek approval for my animal research, I must assure a committee that my subjects are treated with the utmost care. This includes identifying any stress or pain the subject may experience, developing procedures to prevent stress or pain, including long-term observation following painful or stressful treatment, and the names of several personal experienced in handling the specific stress and pain issues the subjects may endure.

When harm is unavoidable in a study, there must be a justification. While some researchers examine the biology of pain or stress others are required to explore all alternatives before justifying a paradigm that causes harm. The study where trans men were shown digitally masculinized images of themselves is an alternative method to test whether this connection is related to gender dysphoria. Projects examining mostly the same hypotheses fall well below the threshold for justifying a new harmful paradigm.

The project abstract available to the public also appears to justify the study with a harmful and misinformed position, that medical transitions have become so popular and acceptable that people are getting them without examining the consequences then regretting the decision. An idea that has been thoroughly debunked by Dr. Jack Turban, a fellow Psychology Today blogger.

While the project has been halted, the damage has been done. All responsible parties should be scrutinized for allowing the research proposal to be approved and receive such major funding. That no one along this process identified these issues raises troubling questions about how little these researchers and institutions understand the experiences and needs of the transgender community.

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