A defense of vegetarian fMRI (1/2)

Recently there’s been much ado about a newly published fMRI study of empathetic responding in vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores. The study isn’t perfect, which the authors admit, but I find it interesting and relatively informative for an fMRI paper. The Neurocritic doesn’t, rather he raises some seemingly serious issues with the study. I promised on twitter I’d defend my claim that the study is good (and that neurocritic could do better). But first, a motivated ramble to distract and confuse you.

As many of you might realize, neuroscience could be said to be going through something like puberty. While the public remains infatuated with every poorly worded research report, researchers within the neurosciences have to view brain mapping through an increasingly skeptical lens. This is a good thing: science progresses through the introduction and use of new technologies and the eventual skeptical refinement of their products.

And certainly there is plenty of examples shoddy neuroscience out there, whether it’s reports of voodoo correlations or inconsistencies between standard fMRI analyses packages. Properly executed, attention to these issues and a healthy skepticism of the methods will ultimately result in a refined science. Yet we must also be careful to apply the balm of skepticism in a refined manner: neuroscientists are people to, and we work in an increasingly competitive field where there are few well-defined standards and even less clarity.

Take an example from my lab that happened just today.  We’re currently analyzing some results from a social cognition experiment my colleague Kristian Tylen and I conducted last year. Like many fMRI results, our hypotheses (which were admitable a bit vague when we made them) were not exactly supported by our findings. Rather we ended up with a scattered series of blobs that appeared to mostly center on early visual areas. This is obviously boring and unpublishable, and after some time we decided to do a small volume correction on some areas we’d discussed in a published paper. This finally revealed some interesting findings somewhere around the TPJ, which brings me to the point of this story.

My research has thus far mostly focused on motor and prefrontal regions. We in neuroimaging can often fall victim to what I call ‘blob blind sight’ where we focus so greatly on a single area or handful of areas that we forget there’s’ a wide world of cortex out there. Imagine my surprise when I tried to get clear about whether our finding was situated in exactly the pSTS, TPJ, or nearby inferior parietal lobule (IPL) only to discover that these three areas are nearly indistinguishable from one another anatomically.

All of these regions are involved in different aspects of social cognition, and across the literature there are no clear anatomical differentiation between them. In many cases, researchers will just lump them together as pSTS/TPJ, regardless of the fact that a great deal of research has gone on explicitly differentiating them. Now what does one do with a blob that lands somewhere in the middle, overlapping all three? More specifically, imagine the case where your activation foci lands smack dab in the middle, or a few voxels to the left. Is it TPJ? Or IPL? Or is it really the conjunction of all three, and if so, how does one make sense of that given the wide array of functions and connectivity patterns for these areas. IPL is a part of the default mode, whereas TPJ and pSTS are not. It’s really quite a mess, and the answer you choose will likely depend upon the interpretation you give, given the vast variety of functions allocated to these three regions.

The point of all this, which begins to lead to my critique of TNC critique, is that it is not a simple matter of putting ones foot down and claiming that the lack of an expected activation or the presence of an unexpected one is damning or indicative of bad science. It’s an inherent problem in a field where hundreds of papers are published monthly with massive tables of activation foci. To say that a study has gone awry because they don’t report your favorite area misses the point. What’s more important is to evaluate the methods and explain the totality of the findings reported.

So that’s one huge issue confronting most researchers. Although there are some open source ‘foci databases’ out there, they are underused and hard to rely on. One can of course try to pinpoint the exact area, but in reality the chance that you’ll have such a focused blob is pretty unlikely. Rather, researchers have to rely on extra-scanner measures and common sense to make any kind of interesting theoretical inferences from fMRI. This post was meant to be a response to The Neurocritic, who took issue with my taking issue of his taking issue with a certain vegetarian fmri study… but I’m already an hour late coming home from work and I’m afraid I’ve failed to deliver. I did take the time this afternoon to go thoroughly through both the paper and TNC’s response however, and I think I’ve got a pretty compelling argument. Next time: why the neurocritic is plain wrong 😉

3 thoughts on “A defense of vegetarian fMRI (1/2)

  1. Good post – I especially like your point that neuroscience is going through puberty. It’s even more tricky actually because different parts of it are in such different stages of development – we know a lot more (though still not a whole lot) about vision than we do about emotion, for example.

    That said though I don’t think that can ever be an excuse for bad methodology. I haven’t read the veggie paper so this is just a general point, but – there is some really really good fMRI out there e.g. I would class this study I posted about amongst that. Or this one. It’s not as if no-one knows how to use fMRI well yet, so everyone should be aiming high.

    • Great to hear from you! And I do of course agree that the difficulties inherent in the field are no excuse for poor methodology. I think what I wanted to get across with this post is that there are criticisms that apply to the field of neuroimaging as a whole. These tend to be rooted in conceptual, methodological, and technological issues that are basically prerequisites for successful brain mapping. I felt that neurocritic’s post (and a lot of recent posts) were really tapping into the systemic problems but blaming them on the authors. There is definitely such a thing as just plain sloppy fMRI work.

      I just don’t think that the vegetarian study, or the ‘fighter pilot’ study qualify. I need to hurry up and post part two; I feel that TNC really missed a few key points that make the study interesting. Primarily, the authors use extra-scanner measures as co-variates, demonstrating a link between their found areas of activation and empathy. I found the study be a very clever plasticity study that if anything was conservative in their approach. I guess this is one more issue: a lot of work in fMRI is very incremental. Often when you see a really breakthrough paper, like the ones you reference, there are about 15 other published (and unpublished) results that were not very interesting but lead up to the more systemic finished product. I think the vegetarian authors meant their experiment as a proof of concept and grounding for future experiments.

  2. Hi and thaks for this post!

    I am by no means an expert, but here are my two cents related to your localization issue (because I’ve been facing similar problems, hehe):

    First, I do consider that red circled area to be the TPJ. The TPJ is not an anatomical structure, so claiming that you’ve found relative activation in the TPJ or in a cluster located in the angular gyrus and extending into the IPL would probably not make too much of a difference. In terms of interpreting what the activation means, one should take into account the design/stimuli and task demands and consider the hypotheses (if one had any). It also helps to consider an entire pattern of activation instead of a single cluster, when this is possible.

    With respect to reverse inference, here’s something I sometimes use for help (probably one of the “foci databases” you refer to): the Brede database is a neuroinformatics database with results from published neuroimaging studies. But it only features search on Talairach coordinates. It is available from http://neuro.imm.dtu.dk/services/brededatabase/

    Something I’ve been meaning to use (but unfortunatelly they are, at least to me, not so intuitive to install/use):

    – an fMRI database that has been established by David van Essen and his group in St Louis over the past years: http://sumsdb.wustl.edu/sums/index.jsp

    – Brainmap’s Scribe: http://brainmap.org/scribe/index.html

    And finally: I agree with you and I actually even sometimes like it when a study doesn’t report an expected activation. Regions like the MPFC or the amygdala are involved in a variety of task demands and it’s interesting to try and find out what does and doesn’t activate a certain region, as well as when and why it does/doesn’t. I guess this is how we move forward.

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