Health: Growing Skepticism about Brain Scans

The Story:

Studies based on brain scans, or more technically speaking “task-fMRI measures,” have been a large part of medical research in recent years. They are obviously important in neurology, but they have led to perhaps over-hasty psychological inferences as well, and they have made for a lot of flashy pop-science headlines. For example, brain scan studies led to recent headlines about how Democrats and Republicans may be hard-wired differently. But a backlash to excessive reliance on this particular research tool is now underway.


Last summer, a Duke University researcher did a meta-analysis, looking carefully at 60 published brain scan studies over the course of a decade. The researcher, Annchen Knodt, has been active in the field himself, and his new skepticism includes his own earlier work. He now maintains that there is “converging evidence” that fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) can be misleading and is in particular poorly suited to “individual-differences research.”

Knodt told a reporter for the Associated Press, “We found this poor result from across the board. We’re basically discrediting much of the work we’ve done.”

In Pill Form:

Separate from Knodt’s research, but certainly in a line that supports his conclusions, two researchers have shown that it is possible to use the raw results of brain scans to detect brain activity in a dead Atlantic salmon.


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