Ethical issues in the clinical application of fMRI: Factors affecting the validity and interpretation of activations

John E. Desmond, S. H.Annabel Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The ability of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to localize activations in a single patient, along with the safety and widespread availability of this methodology, has lead to an increasing use of fMRI for clinical purposes such as pre-surgical planning. As methodology continues to improve and more experience with fMRI in the clinical setting is acquired, clinical functional neuroimaging will likely have an increasing influence over patient care. Therefore, ethical use of fMRI, as with other medical techniques, requires understanding the factors impacting the interpretation of the methodology. Issues affecting the validity and interpretation of clinical functional neuroimaging, including effects of altered hemodynamic response function, head motion, and structural changes in the brain, are reviewed. The distinction between correlated and necessary activation in a clinical context is discussed. Different types of statistical errors in fMRI analysis are described, along with their consequences to the patient. Finally, for the future of clinical fMRI development, the need for normative patient data, as well as standardized tasks, scan protocols, and data analyses, is discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)482-497
Number of pages16
JournalBrain and Cognition
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Clinical
  • Hemodynamic
  • Methods
  • Neuroimaging
  • Standardization
  • Statistics
  • Validation
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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