Searchlight analysis: promise, pitfalls, and potential

Neuroimage. 2013 Sep;78:261-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.03.041. Epub 2013 Apr 1.


Multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) is an increasingly popular approach for characterizing the information present in neural activity as measured by fMRI. For neuroimaging researchers, the searchlight technique serves as the most intuitively appealing means of implementing MVPA with fMRI data. However, searchlight approaches carry with them a number of special concerns and limitations that can lead to serious interpretation errors in practice, such as misidentifying a cluster as informative, or failing to detect truly informative voxels. Here we describe how such distorted results can occur, using both schematic illustrations and examples from actual fMRI datasets. We recommend that confirmatory and sensitivity tests, such as the ones prescribed here, should be considered a necessary stage of searchlight analysis interpretation, and that their adoption will allow the full potential of searchlight analysis to be realized.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Support Vector Machine*