By Neuroskeptic, a neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. A different version of this post appeared on the Neuroskeptic blog.
Brain-scanning studies may be giving us a misleading picture of the brain, according to recently published findings from two teams of neuroscientists.
Both studies made use of a much larger set of data than is usual in neuroimaging studies. A typical scanning experiment might include around 20 people, each of whom performs a given task maybe a few dozen times. So when French neuroscientists Benjamin Thyreau and colleagues analysed the data from 1,326 people, they were able to increase the statistical power of their experiment by an order of magnitude. An American team led by Javier Gonzalez-Castillo, on the other hand, only had 3 people, but each one was scanned while performing the same task 500 times over.
In both cases, the researchers found that close to the whole of the brain “lit up”—that is, showed increased metabolic activity—when people were doing simple mental tasks, compared to just resting. In one case, it was seeing videos of people’s faces; in the other, it was deciding whether stimuli on the screen were letters or numbers. Both studies made use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses powerful magnetic fields to image the brain and detect the changes in blood oxygen caused by differences in the firing rate of the cells in different areas.
There have been many thousands of fMRI papers published since the technique was developed 20 years ago. The great majority of these have produced the familiar “blob” plots showing that different kinds of mental processes engage localized activity in particular parts of the brain. Thyreau and Gonzalez-Castillo, however, were able to detect effects too small to be noticed in such neuroimaging experiments, and found that rather than isolated blobs, large swathes of the brain were involved. This doesn’t mean that everywhere responded equally to the task: the signal was stronger in some areas of the brain than in others, but there were no clear-cut divisions between “active” and “inactive” areas.
While the new results don’t overturn the localization theory as such, they do show that it’s only part of the picture. The blobs are real enough, as they show us the areas where activation is strongest, but it’s misleading to think of these areas as the only places involved in a particular task. Other activations, smaller or less consistent but no less real, are hidden under the threshold of statistical noise. fMRI experiments may just be showing us the tip of the iceberg of brain activity.