Interpreting response time effects in functional imaging studies

Neuroimage. 2014 Oct 1;99:419-33. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.05.073. Epub 2014 Jun 4.


It has been suggested that differential neural activity in imaging studies is most informative if it is independent of response time (RT) differences. However, others view RT as a behavioural index of key cognitive processes, which is likely linked to underlying neural activity. Here, we reconcile these views using the effort and engagement framework developed by Taylor, Rastle, and Davis (2013) and data from the domain of reading aloud. We propose that differences in neural engagement should be independent of RT, whereas, differences in neural effort should co-vary with RT. We illustrate these different mechanisms using data from an fMRI study of neural activity during reading aloud of regular words, irregular words, and pseudowords. In line with our proposals, activation revealed by contrasts designed to tap differences in neural engagement (e.g., words are meaningful and therefore engage semantic representations more than pseudowords) survived correction for RT, whereas activation for contrasts designed to tap differences in neural effort (e.g., it is more difficult to generate the pronunciation of pseudowords than words) correlated with RT. However, even for contrasts designed to tap neural effort, activity remained after factoring out the RT-BOLD response correlation. This may reveal unpredicted differences in neural engagement (e.g., learning phonological forms for pseudowords>words) that could further the development of cognitive models of reading aloud. Our framework provides a theoretically well-grounded and easily implemented method for analysing and interpreting RT effects in neuroimaging studies of cognitive processes.

Keywords: Learning; Lexicality; Neuroimaging; Reading aloud; Regularity; Response time.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Learning / physiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Reading
  • Young Adult