Important fMRI study literacy tips

I love a fMRI story as much as the next person -- there's something addictive about discovering what's going on in your brain as you do and think different things, and how they relate to one another. The reality is not as neat, however. Neuroimaging studies often involve a hypothetical average brain made by studying lots of brain scans, and come to conclusions that are even now the subject of hot debate. Here are four important caveats to consider when reading about fMRI studies (click through for full list):

1. "The Performance Burden" If neural activity is found to differ between groups or conditions, you can't necessarily make inferences about differences in neural information processing - this could reflect behavioral differences alone. For example, if younger children perform worse than older children but also recruit a few different regions, those neural regions might be operating in exactly the same way across ages (e.g., processing errors) - there's just more errors in the younger group! Even with similar levels of performance there's the possibility that children of different ages are using different strategies, different amounts of mental effort, or are differentially reacting to the closed, loud, and claustrophobia-inducing space that is an fMRI scanner...

4 Things to Keep in Mind When Reading fMRI Studies

(Image: fMRI one, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from twitchcraft's photostream)