By: Cyril Pernet and Tom Nichols | Has a software bug really called decades of brain imaging research into question? | Neuroscience | The Guardian
Over the summer, some headlines suggested that a study highlighting issues in the way we analyse fMRI data renders the technique irretrievably flawed. But the reality is much more nuanced
Since its inception in 1990, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has revolutionised the way we think about the brain. In association with other techniques, it provides invaluable clues to understand brain disorders, like psychosis or dementia. At its heart, fMRI is a medical imaging technique that allows scientists to look at where oxygenated blood is being directed around the brain – if a brain area is being used for a particular task, it will need more oxygen. So by extension, fMRI allows us to look at how information is processed in the brain, and is one of the few techniques we have to look directly into a person’s brain while they are thinking.
However, this past summer has seen a series of alarmist headlines about the technique cropping up in the media. There have been claims that ‘Tens of Thousands of fmri brain studies may be flawed’, and that a ‘bug in fMRI software calls 15 years of research into question’ (also here, and up to 20 years here), and even that fMRI as no scientific value (‘the great brain scan scandal’) or that much of what we know about the brain may be wrong. But is fMRI research really in such a sorry state?