On the nature of the BOLD fMRI contrast mechanism

Magn Reson Imaging. 2004 Dec;22(10):1517-31. doi: 10.1016/j.mri.2004.10.018.


Since its development about 15 years ago, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has become the leading research tool for mapping brain activity. The technique works by detecting the levels of oxygen in the blood, point by point, throughout the brain. In other words, it relies on a surrogate signal, resulting from changes in oxygenation, blood volume and flow, and does not directly measure neural activity. Although a relationship between changes in brain activity and blood flow has long been speculated, indirectly examined and suggested and surely anticipated and expected, the neural basis of the fMRI signal was only recently demonstrated directly in experiments using combined imaging and intracortical recordings. In the present paper, we discuss the results obtained from such combined experiments. We also discuss our current knowledge of the extracellularly measured signals of the neural processes that they represent and of the structural and functional neurovascular coupling, which links such processes with the hemodynamic changes that offer the surrogate signal that we use to map brain activity. We conclude by considering applications of invasive MRI, including injections of paramagnetic tracers for the study of connectivity in the living animal and simultaneous imaging and electrical microstimulation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Image Enhancement / methods*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology


  • Oxygen