fMRI guide for journalists

Ella Rhodes on a new resource from Cambridge University cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jon Simons.

Cambridge University cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jon Simons has created an fMRI guide for journalists to use in reporting results from imaging papers. The guide, he said on his blog, aims to provide enough information to allow journalists to read and report on such papers with an appropriate amount of informed scepticism.

Among the pointers Simons outlines are the problems with reverse inference, where a paper links activity in one region with a single mental function. Many brain regions are involved in many psychological processes and it is rare that one-to-one mapping between activity in a brain region and a single mental state is possible. Simons also points out that if a ‘Region of Interest’ approach has been used, the particular regions studied should be selected independently of the analysis and based on the results of previous studies or a different scan in the same experiment.

Simons said the impetus for the guide came from a number of science writers, such as Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, who mentioned that journalists might find it useful if some brief guidance existed on how to approach writing about brain imaging research. He added: ‘The blobs on brains that result from methods such as fMRI look attractive, but the science that underlies them is complex and technically challenging. We wanted to write a guide that might be helpful for those who may not consider themselves fMRI experts, but want to report fMRI journal articles accurately in the media.

‘Hopefully the pointers we provide about common problems to look out for will also be useful to press officers and scientists themselves in helping to craft press releases that reliably describe fMRI findings, resisting hype and mentioning appropriate limitations and caveats. Aiming for accuracy at all stages of the reporting process is, I believe, important for improving the public understanding of science.’

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