Effect of spatial smoothing on t-maps: arguments for going back from t-maps to masked contrast images

J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2006 Jun;26(6):751-9. doi: 10.1038/sj.jcbfm.9600231.


Voxelwise statistical analysis has become popular in explorative functional brain mapping with fMRI or PET. Usually, results are presented as voxelwise levels of significance (t-maps), and for clusters that survive correction for multiple testing the coordinates of the maximum t-value are reported. Before calculating a voxelwise statistical test, spatial smoothing is required to achieve a reasonable statistical power. Little attention is being given to the fact that smoothing has a nonlinear effect on the voxel variances and thus the local characteristics of a t-map, which becomes most evident after smoothing over different types of tissue. We investigated the related artifacts, for example, white matter peaks whose position depend on the relative variance (variance over contrast) of the surrounding regions, and suggest improving spatial precision with 'masked contrast images': color-codes are attributed to the voxelwise contrast, and significant clusters (e.g., detected with statistical parametric mapping, SPM) are enlarged by including contiguous pixels with a contrast above the mean contrast in the original cluster, provided they satisfy P < 0.05. The potential benefit is demonstrated with simulations and data from a [11C]Carfentanil PET study. We conclude that spatial smoothing may lead to critical, sometimes-counterintuitive artifacts in t-maps, especially in subcortical brain regions. If significant clusters are detected, for example, with SPM, the suggested method is one way to improve spatial precision and may give the investigator a more direct sense of the underlying data. Its simplicity and the fact that no further assumptions are needed make it a useful complement for standard methods of statistical mapping.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Artifacts*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology*
  • Contrast Media
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Positron-Emission Tomography*


  • Contrast Media