fMRI Imaging is Less Reliable Than Many Realize


PLOS Neuroscience Community has an interview with a physicist from the UC Berkeley Brain Imaging Center about the strengths — and many weaknesses — of current brain imaging science.

“Since its development in the early 1990’s, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has grown in popularity to become one of the most commonly used techniques to image activity in the human brain,” begins the article. “This rapid growth is due largely to several advantages that set it apart from other neuroimaging tools, including superb spatial resolution, non-invasiveness, safety and minimal preparation time. However, it also has several critical limitations, including relatively poor temporal resolution, susceptibility to various signal artifacts and relying on a signal that only roughly approximates the activity of neurons.”

“My worry is that awareness of the problems doesn’t necessarily translate into changes in approach,” comments the UC Berkeley scientist under the name ‘PractiCal fMRI’. “As a field we haven’t been especially demanding when it comes to methods validation, for example. I could give you a long list of methods – including some very recent ones – that have been deployed in neuroscience without the sort of rigorous testing that I’d like to see beforehand. Sometimes we seem to have decided that good enough is good enough… yet there are no calls to cease and desist with its use until we have completely determined its consequences. Why is this? Surely it must be because the costs of imperfect methods are low yet the costs of slowing down are high… I believe we can improve our game massively.”

FMRI under the Microscope: An interview with MRI Physicist PractiCal fMRI (PLOS Neuroscience Community, January 28, 2015)

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  1. If fMRI imaging was so reliable and results easy to interpret they would be used in courts. If so-called psychiatric illnesses had reliable fMRI correlates they would be used as diagnostic tools. You can see the thought process of a dead salmon with fMRI if you want to.