How long to scan? The relationship between fMRI temporal signal to noise ratio and necessary scan duration

Neuroimage. 2007 Jan 15;34(2):565-74. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.09.032. Epub 2006 Nov 22.


Recent advances in MRI receiver and coil technologies have significantly improved image signal-to-noise ratios (SNR) and thus temporal SNR (TSNR). These gains in SNR and TSNR have allowed the detection of fMRI signal changes at higher spatial resolution and therefore have increased the potential to localize small brain structures such as cortical layers and columns. The majority of current fMRI processing strategies employ multi-subject averaging and therefore require spatial smoothing and normalization, effectively negating these gains in spatial resolution higher than about 10 mm3. Reliable detection of activation in single subjects at high resolution is becoming a more common desire among fMRI researchers who are interested in comparing individuals rather than populations. Since TSNR decreases with voxel volume, detection of activation at higher resolutions requires longer scan durations. The relationship between TSNR, voxel volume and detectability is highly non-linear. In this study, the relationship between TSNR and the necessary fMRI scan duration required to obtain significant results at varying P values is determined both experimentally and theoretically. The results demonstrate that, with a TSNR of 50, detection of activation of above 2% requires at most 350 scan volumes (when steps are taken to remove the influence of physiological noise from the data). Importantly, these results also demonstrate that, for activation magnitude on the order of 1%, the scan duration required is more sensitive to the TSNR level than at 2%. This study showed that with voxel volumes of approximately 10 mm3 at 3 T, and a corresponding TSNR of approximately 50, the required number of time points that guarantees detection of signal changes of 1% is about 860, but if TSNR increases by only 20%, the time for detection decreases by more than 30%. More than just being an exercise in numbers, these results imply that imaging of columnar resolution (effect size=1% and assuming a TR of 1 s) at 3 T will require either 10 min for a TSNR of 60 or 40 min for a TSNR of 30. The implication is that at these resolutions, TSNR is likely to be critical for determining success or failure of an experiment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Radionuclide Imaging
  • Time Factors