Brain scan images can be used to identify patients

Commercially available face recognition software accurately identified patient’s based solely on their brain MRI scans. The findings suggest more resources must be put into securing imaging data.

Christopher Schwarz, PhD, with Mayo Clinic’s Center for Advanced Imaging Research, and colleague found such software correctly matched MRI scans to corresponding photos in 83% of patients. And nearly 100% of the time, the correct MRI scan was placed among the top five possible matches.

"At Mayo Clinic, we take patient privacy as a core value," Schwarz said in a Mayo statement. "We are studying potential gaps in deidentification as we seek ways to improve these techniques."

The problem specifically applies to study participants who share brain imaging data for research, not MRIs performed as part of care visits, according to the letter to the editor published Oct. 23 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

To see if facial recognition software could indeed identify people by their MRIs, the team studied 84 participants who had a brain MRI within the past three months. Schwarz and colleagues created facial reconstruction images from each scan and used facial recognition software to try and match the scans to photographs of the volunteers.

The software was surprisingly adept and identifying the images, which were available as part of public research databases.

"Our study's 83% match rate suggests that facial recognition presents a possible means to reidentify research participants from their cranial MRIs," according to the researchers.

Schwarz and Mayo plan to use the present study to develop a possible solution to be published sometime in the near future.

"We are making good progress toward an initial solution," Schwarz explained. "Making data private and keeping it private is an always-evolving field. The insights we gained in this study will help us in our work to keep patient data private and use it more effectively for research into diseases and potential new therapies."