How and when the fMRI BOLD signal relates to underlying neural activity: the danger in dissociation

Brain Res Rev. 2010 Mar;62(2):233-44. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresrev.2009.12.004. Epub 2009 Dec 21.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has become the dominant means of measuring behavior-related neural activity in the human brain. Yet the relation between the blood oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) signal and underlying neural activity remains an open and actively researched question. A widely accepted model, established for sensory neo-cortex, suggests that the BOLD signal reflects peri-synaptic activity in the form of the local field potential rather than the spiking rate of individual neurons. Several recent experimental results, however, suggest situations in which BOLD, spiking, and the local field potential dissociate. Two different models are discussed, based on the literature reviewed to account for this dissociation, a circuitry-based and vascular-based explanation. Both models are found to account for existing data under some testing situations and in certain brain regions. Because both the vascular and local circuitry-based explanations challenge the BOLD-LFP coupling model, these models provide guidance in predicting when BOLD can be expected to reflect neural processing and when the underlying relation with BOLD may be more complex than a direct correspondence.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Brain* / blood supply
  • Brain* / cytology
  • Brain* / physiology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Oxygen / blood


  • Oxygen