The trouble with fMRI

I’ve written a piece for The Observer about ‘the trouble with brain scans’ that discusses how past fMRI studies may have been based on problematic assumptions.

For years the media has misrepresented brain scan studies (“Brain centre for liking cheese discovered!”) but we are now at an interesting point where neuroscientists are starting to seriously look for problems in their own methods of analysis.

In fact, many of these problems have now been corrected, but we still have 100s or 1000s of previous studies that have been based on methods that have now been abandoned.

In part, the piece was inspired by a post on the Neurocritic blog entitled “How Much of the Neuroimaging Literature Should We Discard?” that was prompted by growing concerns among neuroscientists.

The fact is, fMRI is a relatively new science – it just celebrated it’s 20th birthday – and it is still evolving.

I suspect it will be revised and reconsidered many times yet.

Link to Observer article ‘The Trouble With Brain Scans’

3 thoughts on “The trouble with fMRI”

  1. I was wondering if any neuroscientists have considered that the weather may have a significant impact on brain imaging.
    My research shows release of specific and inverse hormones in the brain depending on the stilumi of air (gases), heat, light and water [weather] in a persons immediate environment. The neural pathways include both serotonin and dopamine.
    I have found a mechanism which controls how, both the body and brain cope with the stilumi of weather to create homeostasis. In other words, how cells of an organism copes with oxygen/CO2, hot/cold, light/dark and wet/dry.
    The unconscious actions of this mechanism can increase or decrease blood flow in the body and brain.

  2. Very interesting post and discussion. I can’t help comparing this situation with what I believe is a fundamental problem with neuroscience research done using EEG—a technology so old that unfortunately virtually no one questions its validity or its utility in both research and clinical applications. In order to maintain the “purity” of results, researchers routinely limit their subject pool to individuals with very specific EEG findings. While this rigor is understandable given the need for reproducibility, the findings may not be true only for individuals within these strict limits. (The interpretation of EEGs is not always straightforward, either.) Yet findings are typically interpreted in a very black-and-white fashion. Acknowledging the studies that show unequivocally that EEG fails to accurately detect deep-seated seizures and seizures that involve a very small portion of tissue would muddy the results.

    And unfortunately this approach carries over into clinical practice, where neurologists are dismissive of EEG abnormalities that don’t meet the narrow definitions used in the studies. This kind of research rigor leads to diagnoses such as psychogenic seizures, a construct which may in reality just represent seizures without clear EEG evidence.

    I’ve posted several brief pieces on the misuse of EEG…such as

  3. I am an A Level Psychology teacher and I loved your article in the Guardian. Students certainly make the assumption, as do most people, that brain scans are more “scientific” than some of the more traditional research methods in Psychology and therefore assume that they are the most objective, trustworthy sources of evidence. I blog for teachers about ways to use new research and topical ideas in the classroom as learning resources to compliment the A Level course. Your article is a must read for teachers and students. My post can be found at

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