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Applications of real-time fMRI

Abstract

For centuries people have aspired to understand and control the functions of the mind and brain. It has now become possible to image the functioning of the human brain in real time using functional MRI (fMRI), and thereby to access both sides of the mind–brain interface — subjective experience (that is, one's mind) and objective observations (that is, external, quantitative measurements of one's brain activity) — simultaneously. Developments in neuroimaging are now being translated into many new potential practical applications, including the reading of brain states, brain–computer interfaces, communicating with locked-in patients, lie detection, and learning control over brain activation to modulate cognition or even treat disease.

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Figure 1: Imaging the human brain in real time.
Figure 2: Communication with a patient in a vegetative state using functional MRI.
Figure 3: Direct mental control over navigation through a maze by monitoring distributed brain activation with fMRI.
Figure 4: Learned explicit control over activation in a targeted brain region.
Figure 5: Training leads to spatially specific explicit control over brain activation, with corresponding changes in pain perception.

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Acknowledgements

This work was funded by US National Institutes of Health Grants and Contracts MH067290, NS050642, NS049673, N43DA-4-7748, DA021877, and N43DA-7-4408.

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Competing interests

This work was funded by US National Institutes of Health Grants and Contracts MH067290, NS050642, NS049673, N43DA-4-7748, DA021877 and N43DA-7-4408 to Omneuron Inc., a venture that is developing clinical applications of real-time functional MRI and that is conducting ongoing clinical trials of this approach. R. Christopher deCharms is CEO of this venture and has an ownership interest.

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Glossary

Biofeedback

A technique in which a continuous measure of some aspect of a person's biology is presented to that person for the purpose of training them to control the measure and, thereby, the corresponding biological function.

Contrast agent

A chemical agent that, when injected into a person, increases the measured contrast (the difference in image intensity) between different types of tissue. For example, a Gadolinium-based dye is sometimes used in MRI.

EEG

(Electroencephalography). A method for measuring the fast electrical activity in the brain that is associated with neuronal activation.

Locked-in syndrome

A medical state in which a patient has very limited or no ability to communicate with the world, often owing to extensive paralysis.

MEG

(Magnetoencephalography). A method for measuring the fast magnetic activity in the brain that is associated with neuronal activation.

Near-infrared spectroscopy

A method used for measuring brain blood flow and oxygenation near the cranial surface by shining near-infrared light through the skull and measuring the resulting emitted light spectrum, which is indicative of blood properties.

Pattern-classification algorithm

A computer-modelling method for classifying statistical patterns in complex multi-parameter data. For example, pattern-classification algorithms have been built that will classify spatial patterns of fMRI data (2D images or 3D volumes) by estimating what task a subject was undertaking when each particular fMRI pattern was measured.

Persistent vegetative state

A medical condition in which a patient shows sustained unresponsiveness and does not show evidence of awareness.

Region of interest (ROI) analysis

A method for measuring the time course of activation from a selected volume of the brain. This method can be used to infer the average activation in a region of a person's brain that has been caused by a stimulus or task, or conversely a level of ROI activation can be used to attempt to infer what task is being undertaken by a person.

Spatial-point spread function

The amount of spread, through space, of the measured signal that arises from an idealized single point in space. Spatial spread is caused by noise and imperfections in the measurement technique, for instance MRI.

Voxel

A 3D volume element of measurement (for example, a cube). Voxels are the 3D volume equivalent of a pixel in a 2D image.

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Christopher deCharms, R. Applications of real-time fMRI. Nat Rev Neurosci 9, 720–729 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2414

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