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Brain surface

David Longley David at longley.demon.co.uk
Sat Oct 16 05:42:22 EST 2004

In article 
<m.kirkcaldie-1C98BB.15542716102004 at tomahawk.comms.unsw.edu.au>, Matthew 
Kirkcaldie <m.kirkcaldie at removethis.unsw.edu.au> writes
>In article <416fb952 at dnews.tpgi.com.au>,
> "John Hasenkam" <johnh at faraway.> wrote:
>> Thanks for the correction Matthew, like the original poster I was under the
>> impression that fMRI was limited. Perhaps you can help me with another
>> concern in relation to fMRI. I have noted in a number of articles that
>> images produced for a given task can vary quite considerably.
>I am by no means an fMRI expert, but the fundamental limitation of the
>technique is that it relies on changes in MRI density caused by changes
>in local blood oxygenation (often abbreviated BOLD fMRI - Blood Oxygen
>Level Dependent fMRI).  The technique, for those unfamiliar, involves
>making a scan of the brain while the subject does nothing, and then
>having the subject perform some kind of task or pay attention to a
>stimulus, and making the scan again. The "resting" scan forms a
>reference level, and at every point in the head, the "active" scan is
>compared to the reference.  If the "active" scan density is different at
>some points, it can be concluded that the local levels of blood
>oxygenation have changed, and the point is coloured according to how far
>off-baseline it is (calculated statistically based on the overall amount
>of change seen in the scan).
>This leads to several serious limitations of fMRI, which are
>particularly problematic when someone tries to treat an fMRI image as a
>picture of "nervous system activity":
>1. fMRI is a map of changes in blood flow: nothing more, nothing less.
>It is conjectured, but not definitively proven, that active tissue in
>the CNS can modulate local blood flow to produce changes in density on
>an MRI scan.  fMRI advocates would say that the blood flow changes are
>produced by whatever processes contribute to the mental activity being
>performed, but that's rather a circular argument.  There's no proven
>causal chain between, say, a neuron firing more actively and a change in
>the amount of oxygenated blood flowing through the nearest capillary.
>2. As far as I know, the mechanism by which blood flow is altered is not
>understood. It is likely to be strongly mediated by astrocytes, whose
>processes wrap brain capillaries in continuous sheaths, and hence would
>be controlled by glial cells, rather than neurons.  Hence it seems
>likely that the needs of glia are more relevant to fMRI than the
>activity of neurons directly.
>3. There is no absolute scale for what constitutes "active" levels of
>difference on the fMRI image.  To a large extent they are set ad-hoc
>based on the levels observed in individuals.  Hence it is difficult to
>compare between individuals and between studies.  Normalised
>co-ordinates such as the Talairach system can help adjust for the
>structural differences in individual brains, but there's no way to
>adjust for the real differences in regional function between
>individuals, which have been demonstrated anatomically and
>physiologically but don't show up on MRI.
>4. Nobody has any idea if blood flow is modulated by the *type* of
>processing in a given region - aside from the ignorant people who
>believe we only use 10% of our brains, most neuroscientists would agree
>that even during "resting", there is sustained and large scale activity
>in the nervous system, and we are looking for fluctuations on a much
>smaller scale, which may or may not be relevant to what the region is
>doing.  For instance, active suppression of activity in a region is
>almost certainly more metabolically expensive than normal processing, so
>a strongly suppressed area would show up as more "active" on an fMRI
>scan.  Histological stains which show markers of high metabolic need are
>usually labelling inhibitory neurons, which tells us who the major
>"blood consumers" are in the brain.
>5. Similarly, it is possible that changes in patterns of activity,
>rather than the overall amount of activity, could be far more relevant
>in processing tasks and stimuli.  The idea of synchronisation has been
>widely proposed as a way that processes could be "bound" together in
>consciousness, but that only involves altering the timing of spikes, not
>the overall number.  Presumably that wouldn't show up on fMRI at all,
>since the tissue's metabolic demands would be unchanged.
>6. An allied argument is that changes in blood flow are a cumulative
>result of sustained activity, such that only the longest-duration
>changes are going to show up as changes to blood flow.  The blood flow
>changes necessarily lag whatever processes cause them, and that may take
>place over a much longer time scale than the processing itself takes.
>The longest-duration processes are not necessarily the most relevant to
>the ability under study.
>Finally, the major problem with fMRI is that it produces pretty images,
>at great expense, but really tells us very little about how the brain
>does what it does.  Ask yourself whether our knowledge of face
>recognition and how the brain does it is enhanced by knowing it's done
>on the fusiform gyrus, instead of knowing it happens in the head
>"somewhere".   Its illusion of specificity, combined with a lack of any
>real insight to processing, produces the dangerous illusion of
>understanding phenomena which in reality have only been *described*
>slightly more accurately.
>These and other reservations have led to fMRI being characterised by
>some hard-core physiologists of my acquaintance as "phrenology with
>coloured lights." A harsh assessment, but one which I have found quite
>hard to escape after hearing it.
>Of course there are insights to be gained from fMRI applied with regard
>for its limitations, but there is a growing body of "soft" science which
>appears to regard it as a kind of x-ray vision where you can watch
>people thinking.  Sorry, not even close!
>> This concern was heightened recently when I read
>> an unpublished paper citing that replicability in PET and fMRI is difficult
>> to achieve. The author asserted that replicability was all but absent. When
>> I found his web page he had posted various editor responses and none of
>> these indicated a challenge to his paper, rather that he needed to do more
>> work, or it was not appropriate for that particular journal. The only reason
>> I read this paper is because I had noted this lack of replicability
>> mentioned in quite a few other papers, though only in passing.
>I'd love to read the paper you mention - these kind of views are not
>very fashionable at the moment, and it would be great to hear what
>others say.
>> Your opinion on these matters would be appreciated,
>Please bear in mind it's only an opinion, many others know way more than
>I do about it, and I would appreciate corrections, refutations and
>amplifications from others.
>Sorry to go on at such length - all this has been brewing at the back of
>my mind for several months.  How do I know it was at the BACK of my
>mind?  Well, there's this type of brain scanning called fMRI, and ...
>> ps, hope you get some rain down there soon, here in SE QLD dry as dust ... .
>Hope so for all of us, but if the CO2 continues to rise it might be an
>academic question.

A timely and apposite contribution Matthew. In c.a.p some of these 
points about the new phrenology (fMRI being just one of the most salient 
example alas) have been repeatedly made in an effort to debunk what 
appears to be an epidemic of irrationality which has come with the 
democratization of education and especially "science". The extent of the 
mythology created by "the decade of the brain" and its funding over the 
past decade is both staggering and worrying. "Cognitive neuroscience" 
(which isn't a soft-science but pseudo-science for reasons I've tried to 
explain elsewhere) is metaphysics and is having pernicious consequences 
through shaping public policies in areas where it has absolutely nothing 
to contribute (e.g education) over traditional, more conservative 
practices. Market forces are more likely to drive out conservative, 
realistic scientific practices as the latter are far less popular, 
"promising" and "comprehensible" to the majority. The problem is wider 
than science of course.
David Longley

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