Seductiveness of brain imaging

Today’s Wall St. Journal reports that graphically appealing MRI and PET scan images of the brain seduce us into thinking we understand more than we do. We see the bright red spot on the cocaine user’s brain when he sees a pile of white powder. We see how a chess grandmaster activates certain regions when working on a complex strategy. But it doesn’t mean we understand the underlying activities any better.

In addition to the points made in the Journal, there are some other interesting aspects to this issue:

  • Expensive imaging modalities (MRI and PET in particular) get over used and over reimbursed because they seem to show us something particularly valuable. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Often there are other ways to get at the same information
  • Most of the studies featured in newspaper and journal articles are performed on very few subjects, and focus on very specific functions and regions rather than trying to understand the brain as a system. The field has not done a good job of building large scale databases that would enable more robust research and integration of results

I’ve been learning about these issues first hand with a client called the Brain Resource Company in Sydney, Australia. They are working to address these issues by forming an international, multi-disciplinary consortium to build a standardized, multi-modality database of the human brain along with tools to mine it. It’s exciting and challenging.

March 18, 2005

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