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Int J Psychophysiol. 2009 Jul;73(1):3-9. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2008.11.003. Epub 2008 Nov 18.

Functional MRI at the crossroads.

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Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, Department of Neurology, UCLA School of Medicine, 635 Charles E. Young Drive SW, Suite #225, Los Angeles, CA 90095-7334, USA.


Since the observation of the blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) effect on measured MR signal in the brain, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has rapidly become the tool of choice for exploring brain function in cognitive neuroscience. Although fMRI is an exciting and powerful means to examining the brain in vivo, the field has sometimes permitted itself to believe that patterns of BOLD activity reveal more than it is possible to measure given the method's spatial and temporal sampling, while concurrently not fully exploring the amount of information it provides. In this article, we examine some of the constraints on the kinds of inferences that can be supported by fMRI. We critique the concept of reverse inference that is often employed to claim some cognitive function must be present given activity in a specific region. We review the consideration of functional and effective connectivity that remain infrequently applied in cognitive neuroimaging, highlighting recent thinking on the ways in which functional imaging can be used to characterize inter-regional communication. Recent advances in neuroimaging that make it possible to assess anatomical connectivity using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and we discuss how these may inform interpretation of fMRI results. Descriptions of fMRI studies in the media, in some instances, serve to misrepresent fMRI's capabilities. We comment on how researchers need to faithfully represent fMRI's promise and limitations in dealing with the media. Finally, as we stand at the crossroads of fMRI research, where one pathway leads toward a rigorous understanding of cognitive operations using fMRI and another leads us to a predictable collection of observations absent of clear insight, we offer our impressions of a fruitful path for future functional imaging research.

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