OF all the techniques used by neuroscientists, none has captured the imagination of the general public more than functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The technique, which is also referred to as functional neuroimaging and, more commonly, “brain scanning”, enables us to peer into the human brain non-invasively, to observe its workings and correlate specific thought processes or stimuli to activity in particular regions. fMRI data affect the way in which people perceive scientific results: colourful images of the brain have persuasive power, making the accompanying data seem more credible.
Functional neuroimaging is used widely by researchers, too, with tens of thousands of research papers describing fMRI studies being published in the past decade. Yet, a big question mark has been hanging over the validity of the technique for over a year and, furthermore, the way in which fMRI data are interpreted has also been called into question. Using a novel combination of fMRI and a recently developed state-of-the-art technique called optogenetics, researchers now provide the first direct evidence that the fMRI signal is a valid measure of brain activity.