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Battling brains

A study led by Edward Vul, a PhD student of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has called into…

By Kevin Sauve , in Grey matter: A blog about the brain and behaviour , on January 17, 2009

A study led by Edward Vul, a PhD student of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has called into question the validity of several studies that link parts of the brain to social behaviour. After reviewing 54 major research papers in the social neurosciences, Vul has published a free paper that is circulating widely around the net, asserting that many functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies contain significant statistical blunders.

This has struck nerve in the neuroscience community, generating tremors of conflict throughout the World Wide Web. (See the blogs Mind Hacks or The Neurocritic). Prior to the release of a peer-reviewed article that will refute Vul’s claims, several of the neuroscientists on his “red-list” have issued a press release that was published Thursday by Nature online.

The scientists, including members of the National Institute of Mental Health, state that Vul has failed to grasp the complexities of brain imaging statistics and that he has made spurious and “unfair” conclusions about valid research.

Their anguish is understandable. I know I would hardly be impressed if after years of laborious study and a plethora of peer-reviewed papers someone with fewer suffixes had the gull to label my work as preposterous. It must have taken guts, not to mention brains, to engage in this battle.

And a battle it will be. Vul has already published a website refuting the refutations.

Some people have had reservations about the grandeur claims of fMRI research for quite some time. There was a great article written by Benedict Carey in the New York Times about this two years ago.

Nonetheless, research into the correlation between the brain and behaviour has come along way since the days when Dr. Wilder Penfield probed the brains of conscious patients looking for the cells that “smelt burnt toast”. fMRI has allowed neuroscientists the ability to peer into the brain while giving patients the dignity of keeping their skulls intact.

fMRI is now being used to discover everything psychological, and the media is eating it up. Two weeks ago 60 minutes did a special report on fMRI used for mind reading and lie detection.

It wouldn’t matter much if the technology remained a pricey plaything for neuroscientists, but now that it’s used in politics and the private sector, there is good reason to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism.

Companies such as No Lie fMRI are marketing the massive magnet as a lie detection device more accurate than the polygraph and corporations like McDonald’s, Proctor and Gamble, and Intel (just to name a few) have high hopes for its use in marketing strategies.

Regardless of whether he’s wrong or right, Guys like Vul are perpetuating the tradition of good science, scouring data for errors when the numbers just don’t add up and keeping scientists on their toes where they should be. Besides, it is always great to remind people that we have come along way since the times the indubitable high clergy and the aristocratic authority of the church.

Perhaps because of its complex nature, brain research is often given the benefit of the doubt and few people have the brains or brawn to challenge it. But let’s not forget, that our brains often make mistakes and neuroscientists are, quite literally, just brains who research brains.