The past 15 years of human brain research could be invalidated by a recently discovered bug in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) software, according to researchers at Linkoping University in Sweden.
When researchers interpret data from an fMRI scanner, they are not studying the actual brain, but images of the brain divided into "voxels" interpreted by statistical software. Linkoping's Anders Eklund and colleagues obtained resting-state fMRI data from 499 healthy people sourced from databases worldwide, divided them into cohorts of 20, and measured them against each other to produce 3 million random comparisons. They then tested the three most popular fMRI software packages for fMRI analysis, which generated false-positive rates of up to 70% instead of the 5% the team originally expected.
One of the bugs identified by the researchers had been in the system for 15 years, which is why up to 40,000 papers are potentially at risk of invalidation.
The fact that the bug was not spotted for so long signals the ease with which such an error can occur, as researchers have lacked reliable techniques for validating fMRI results. Compounding the situation is the huge cost of fMRI scanning, as well as the prohibitively slow rate of result validation programs.
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