Insights from neuroenergetics into the interpretation of functional neuroimaging: an alternative empirical model for studying the brain's support of behavior

J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2014 Nov;34(11):1721-35. doi: 10.1038/jcbfm.2014.145. Epub 2014 Aug 27.


Functional neuroimaging measures quantitative changes in neurophysiological parameters coupled to neuronal activity during observable behavior. These results have usually been interpreted by assuming that mental causation of behavior arises from the simultaneous actions of distinct psychological mechanisms or modules. However, reproducible localization of these modules in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) imaging has been elusive other than for sensory systems. In this paper, we show that neuroenergetic studies using PET, calibrated functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), (13)C magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and electrical recordings do not support the standard approach, which identifies the location of mental modules from changes in brain activity. Of importance in reaching this conclusion is that changes in neuronal activities underlying the fMRI signal are many times smaller than the high ubiquitous, baseline neuronal activity, or energy in resting, awake humans. Furthermore, the incremental signal depends on the baseline activity contradicting theoretical assumptions about linearity and insertion of mental modules. To avoid these problems, while making use of these valuable results, we propose that neuroimaging should be used to identify observable brain activities that are necessary for a person's observable behavior rather than being used to seek hypothesized mental processes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior / physiology*
  • Brain* / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain* / metabolism
  • Functional Neuroimaging / methods*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Mental Processes / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Positron-Emission Tomography / methods
  • Radiography