Getting the Picture

The growing use of functional magnetic resonance imaging in brain research has caused some researchers and commercial firms to overstate the capabilities of the technology, as NBR senior technical editor Warren Grill points out in his article on page 1 of this issue. In some respects, it’s not surprising that this imaging technique has garnered such a following. The colorful and enticing images produced by fMRI systems make for compelling presentations at conferences and to the media. And many medical industry observers are familiar with utility of MRI in applications such as orthopedics.

Our concern with the alleged overinterpretation of fMRI data is not just scientific accuracy. We also worry that overdependence on fMRI as a diagnostic tool may negatively impact demand for neurosensing systems such as electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography that are based on actual neuronal dynamics within the brain. While the waveform data produced by EEG and MEG systems may not be as photogenic as fMRI images, neurosensing systems that monitor communication among neurons and neural centers may offer more meaningful—and spatially precise—information on what’s going on in the brain.

Just as we believe that neuromodulation therapies are capable of delivering more targeted and controllable interventions than systemic approaches offered by pharmaceutical therapies, we also think that neurosensing systems that are based on electrical activity within the nervous system will yield more precise information for clinicians in the long run. And the cellular recordings obtained from implanted or epidural microelectrodes used in research and in new brain-computer interface systems offer clinicians and neuroscientists a level of control that would never be possible with neurovascular-based systems. In many respects manufacturers of neurosensing systems based on neuronal electrical activity are in league with neurostimulation system vendors engaged in combatting the bias against electronic devices that exists in some clinical settings.

Fostering a neurodiagnostics field that appreciates the significance of electrical activity in the brain will give rise to new sensing and imaging technologies that are even more precise, less invasive, and more cost-effective than today’s products. For example, magnetic navigation systems from companies such as Magstim and Nexstim offer powerful tools for neurosurgeons.

Of course, in the end, neuroscience researchers and neurological clinicians will benefit from a robust arsenal of imaging and sensing systems that includes fMRI, EEG, magnetic sensing, and other technologies. We want the choice of which system to use in a given situation to be based on sound science and not pretty pictures.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher



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