fMRI has been applied to almost every aspect of brain science since. It has shown that the brain is highly compartmentalized, with specific regions responsible for tasks such as perceiving faces and weighing up moral responsibility; that the resting brain is in fact humming with activity; and that it may be possible to communicate with patients in a vegetative state by monitoring their brain activity7. In 2010, neuroscientists used fMRI in more than 1,500 published articles.

But researchers readily admit that the technique has flaws. It doesn't measure neuronal activity directly and it is blind to details such as how many neurons are firing, or whether firing in one region amplifies or dampens activity in neighbouring areas. The signal — a boost in blood flow in response to a stimulus — can be difficult to extract from the 'noise' of routine changes in blood flow, and the statistical techniques involved are easy to misunderstand and misuse. “I'm surprised that fMRI has kept going for 20 years,” says Karl Friston, scientific director of University College London's neuroimaging centre. Friston says he thought all the interesting questions would have been “cherry-picked within the first two or three years”.
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