Neuroimaging activation studies typically observe signals during two or more periods of differing cognitive activity which are then analyzed by a subtraction to test for localized neuroanatomical dissociations between cognitive tasks. Significant activity found between task conditions is frequently assumed to reflect a novel cognitive process present in one task and not the other. We present a conceptual framework that considers the neural mechanisms underlying such observed neuroimaging changes. We propose that neuroimaging experiments which present stimuli at a fixed pace (where each trial takes the same amount of time) will be sensitive to changes in both duration and intensity of neural processing. In contrast, the signal observed during a self-paced design is derived from neural processing averaged over the reaction time and hence could be less sensitive to differences in duration of neural processing. As an empirical demonstration of these ideas, we studied normal subjects using echoplanar functional MRI during two visuospatial tasks (matching of either ROTATED or NONROTATED stimuli) performed using FIXED and SELF-PACED designs. In both pacing designs, reaction times were greater in the ROTATED than NONROTATED task, interpreted as a greater duration of neural processing during the ROTATED compared to the NONROTATED task. In the FIXED-PACED design, significantly greater signal was present within a parieto-occipital cortical region during the ROTATED task compared to the NONROTATED task. This difference was not observed during the SELF-PACED design. This result illustrates the importance of considering trial pacing in the interpretation of functional neuroimaging activation studies.
Copyright 1997 Academic Press.