Two of my physics professors at Queen's University (Dr. Stewart and Dr. McKee) were the original developers of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) for medical applications. They and a number of other Queen's physicists also worked on improving the accuracy of fMRI for observing metabolic activity within the human body.
As a graduate student working in the Department of Epidemiology in 1998, I was approached by a group of nurses who were attempting to organize a protest against male infant circumcision in Kinston General Hospital. They said that their observations indicated that babies undergoing the procedure were subjected to significant and inhumane levels of pain that subsequently adversely affected their behaviours. They said that they needed some scientific support for their position. It was my idea to use fMRI and/or PET scanning to directly observe the effects of circumcision on the infant brain.
The operator of the MRI machine in the hospital was a friend of mine and he agreed to allow us to use the machine for research after normal operational hours. We also found a nurse who was under intense pressure by her husband to have her newborn son circumcised and she was willing to have her son to be the subject of the study. Her goal was to provide scientific information that would eventually be used to ban male infant circumcision. Since no permission of the ethics committee was required to perform any routine male infant circumcision, we did not feel it was necessary to seek any permission to carry out this study.
We tightly strapped an infant to a traditional plastic "circumrestraint" using Velcro restraints. We also completely immobilized the infant's head using standard surgical tape. The entire apparatus was then introduced into the MRI chamber. Since no metal objects could be used because of the high magnetic fields, the doctor who performed the surgery used a plastic bell ("Plastibell") with a sterilized obsidian bade to cut the foreskin. No anaesthetic was used.
The baby was kept in the machine for several minutes to generate baseline data of the normal metabolic activity in the brain. This was used to compare to the data gathered during and after the surgery. Analysis of the MRI data indicated that the surgery subjected the infant to significant trauma. The greatest changes occurred in the limbic system concentrating in the amygdala and in the frontal and temporal lobes.
A neurologist who saw the results to postulated that the data indicated that circumcision affected most intensely the portions of the victim's brain associated with reasoning, perception and emotions. Follow up tests on the infant one day, one week and one month after the surgery indicated that the child's brain never returned to its baseline configuration. In other words, the evidence generated by this research indicated that the brain of the circumcised infant was permanently changed by the surgery.
Our problems began when we attempted to publish our findings in the open medical literature. All of the participants in the research including myself were called before the hospital discipline committee and were severely reprimanded. We were told that while male circumcision was legal under all circumstances in Canada, any attempt to study the adverse effects of circumcision was strictly prohibited by the ethical regulations. Not only could we not publish the results of our research, but we also had to destroy all of our results. If we refused to comply, we were all threatened with immediate dismissal and legal action.
I would encourage anyone with access to fMRI and /or PET scanning machines to repeat our research as described above, confirm our results, and then publish the results in the open literature.
Paul D. Tinari, Ph.D.
Pacific Institute for Advanced Study
Related Reading on infant genital cutting and neurological change:
Circumcision Pain Studies End Early Due to Infant Trauma
Infant Pain Impacts Adult Sensitivity and Perception
Study: A Bicultural Analysis of Circumcision
CIRP.org catalog of peer reviewed research on circumcision and brain damage.
Additional information at: Should I circumcise? The pros and cons of infant circumcision