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Functional Magnetic Resonance

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Functional Magnetic Resonance

First introduced in the 1990s, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is used to map the brain by providing 3D neuroimages showing areas of activity. The patient is placed in a tube-shaped machine that uses incredibly powerful electromagnets to scan the body and brain.

Functional Magnetic Resonance fMRI machine StudySmarterfMRI machine with a patient, Thomas Angus, Wikimedia Commons

In 1993, fMRI was mentioned less than 20 times in published articles. As a new technique, it developed rapidly, and by 2003 that number was about 1800 (Berman et al. 2006). There could be several reasons for this. We believe it was due to the novel and interesting methods scientists began to use to study the brain with fMRI and how they used this technique to determine the brain’s functions as a whole.

How does functional magnetic resonance imaging work?

Functional magnetic resonance imaging detects changes in blood oxygenation in the brain, the flow of which brain activity affects. When an area of the brain is more active because the participant or patient being observed is doing something, such as working on a task, or because of damage, the brain blood flow will increase or decrease based on oxygen demand.

This process is referred to as hyperactivation (more) or hypoactivation (less). Hyperactivation can be detected on fMRI scans when areas of the brain are highlighted in red and hypoactivation is indicated by blue areas.

Haemoglobin supplies oxygen to neurons. When these neurons activate, the increased activity must be balanced by providing the necessary oxygen and blood flow to make this possible. Blood with a higher oxygen concentration is affected differently by magnetic fields than blood with lower oxygen content. The fMRI magnetic field can detect this when scanning the participant or patient. This is called the BOLD (Blood oxygenation level-dependent) signal or theory and is primarily responsible for how an fMRI identifies functional areas.

An fMRI will then map the activated areas using voxels (when creating a 3D image of the brain, a voxel unit represents a tiny portion of brain tissue in the image), producing neural images, as seen below. The highlighted areas are active parts of the brain, in this case, someone working on a memory task while sitting in the machine.

Functional Magnetic Resonance fMRI scan working memory StudySmarterfMRI scan during working memory tasks, Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, a participant or patient must not speak or otherwise communicate when thinking about a task or answering a question. They have to answer it internally to prevent the brain from activating in other areas. Suppose the participant answers a question about a memory task out loud. In that case, the motor cortex (getting the body and muscles to speak) and the language areas (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) could activate and deactivate, messing up the results.

If a participant is working on a memory task, but other brain areas are also ‘firing’ up, it would be nearly impossible to assign a function to one area of the brain with certainty. Furthermore, when analysing the results, it would be difficult to pinpoint areas suffering functional loss due to damage if other parts of the brain are also hyper activating and deactivating during a task.

A good example is a study by Downing et al. (2001) in which they used fMRI to assign a function to specific brain regions:

  • There is evidence that the human visual cortex regions respond specifically and selectively to faces.
  • Downing et al. (2001) wanted to find out if this was also true for other regions responding to human body images and not just to faces.
  • They found that cortical regions in the brain do indeed respond selectively to images of the human body, particularly the lateral occipitotemporal cortex, and that a specialised neural system exists for visual perception of the human body.
  • The use of fMRIs made all these discoveries possible!

Similarly, Haxby et al. (2001) studied the architecture of the object visual pathway in the brain using fMRI:

  • They measured the ventral temporal cortex patterns while subjects looked at faces, cats, nonsensical pictures, and artificial objects.
  • They found distinct pattern responses for each category.
  • Overall, they found that representations of faces and objects in the ventral temporal cortex were widely distributed and overlapping.
  • They identified these functional areas thanks to the use of fMRI.

By using this brain scanning technique to identify potential functional areas, we can say that certain behaviours could be due to these functional areas. We can assume that an area of the brain that ‘lights up’, so to speak, correlates with the actions and behaviours of the individual, especially if we are careful in our experiments of isolating specific stimuli.

So when someone is confronted with frightening visual stimuli and certain areas of the brain activate, such as the amygdala, we can see that area of the brain being associated with a particular response. The amygdala is where our fight-or-flight response begins. With techniques like this, we can determine this in certain situations and attribute a ‘fight-or-flight’ behaviour to the amygdala!

Evaluation of functional magnetic resonance

What are the advantages of functional magnetic resonance imaging? How about its weaknesses in studying the brain?


  • Non-invasive: An fMRI does not involve inserting anything into the brain or cutting open the head to look at the brain itself. It provides a view of the brain and its activities without invasive techniques.

  • Virtually no associated risks: Because fMRI does not require any of the invasive techniques mentioned above, it is already safer than those techniques. It also does not use radiation, used in other brain-scanning techniques such as the PET scan (positron emission tomography).

  • Clearly illustrates localisation: Neuroimages show clear areas of activity related to the patient’s or participant’s activity and are robust in studies that focus on examining a specific function, limiting confounding variables.

  • Helps prepare for surgery: If a patient needs surgery, fMRI is valuable beforehand to map areas needing attention to better prepare and navigate efficiently during surgery.

  • High spatial resolution: It provides a detailed image and is extremely accurate.


  • Expensive: Operating an fMRI machine is quite costly, both in training and the machine itself.

  • Stillness required: A participant or patient must remain still while scanning in the machine, severely limiting the type of research with this method. They cannot move, respond properly, or perform tasks that require movement, as this would compromise the results or make scanning impossible altogether.

  • Blood flow is difficult to interpret: Because an fMRI only detects changes in blood flow, it can only tell you if an area is active or not. It does not tell you why the neurone in question is activated, nor does it tell you anything beyond changes in blood flow. The neurone itself can be activated for various reasons, with different tiny functions controlled by the primary function. Therefore, it is impossible to determine the cause and effect.

  • Some areas also light up for multiple reasons. Certain areas of the brain are responsible for reactions that can be opposite, especially when it comes to emotional responses.

  • Low temporal resolution: there is a slight delay, usually about five seconds, before changes in blood flow and activity levels within a neurone are detected, so fMRI has a poor temporal resolution.

Functional Magnetic Resonance - Key takeaways

  • An fMRI is a neuroimaging technique used to map the brain.
  • It detects changes in blood flow occurring when the brain is performing a task and can use a magnetic field to create a 3D image of the brain with highlighted areas of activity.
  • Haemoglobin is responsible for transporting oxygen to neurones in the brain, which require increased blood flow during activity. The fMRI detects these changes.
  • An fMRI is non-invasive, virtually risk-free and has a high spatial resolution. It is a great aid in finding localised areas of function.
  • However, it has a low temporal resolution, is quite expensive, and requires the patient to remain still to obtain an accurate image. This aspect severely limits the types of research for which fMRI can provide results.

Frequently Asked Questions about Functional Magnetic Resonance

An fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) maps the brain, providing 3D neuroimages with areas of activity.

It detects blood flow changes within the brain (BOLD), which is a response to changes in activity levels due to functional needs and the increased demand for oxygen. An fMRI can then build a 3D image using voxels to show these changes, creating a neural image. 

It provides highly detailed (high spatial resolution) brain images whilst being non-invasive and virtually risk-free. It is valuable before surgical purposes to map the brain and is good in assigning function to areas of the brain. However, it is expensive and has a low temporal resolution. Also, it isn’t easy to interpret the results as blood flow does not give much insight into a neurone beyond detecting if it’s activated or not. The patient also has to remain still, limiting the types of research with fMRI.

An EEG (electroencephalography) uses electrodes to detect electrical activity changes through the scalp. It can be used during tasks that require a patient to move, unlike an fMRI. An EEG has an excellent temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution.

It can detect and assign brain areas to a specific function; for instance, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are known as the language zones as they activate during speech and language production and comprehension. It can detect areas of damage and can map the brain quite accurately.

Final Functional Magnetic Resonance Quiz


What does fMRI stand for?

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Functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Show question


What is an fMRI?

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It is a machine for scanning the brain using a magnetic field. It detects blood flow changes occurring due to increased activity within the brain.

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What is hyperactivation?

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It refers to higher levels of activation.

Show question


What carries oxygen to neurones in the brain?

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Show question


What does BOLD stand for?

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Blood oxygenation level-dependent.

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What is a voxel?

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It is a unit of measurement that builds up the 3D image in an fMRI. It represents a small portion of brain tissue.

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Why must a patient be still during fMRI? 

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To avoid other areas of the brain activating, confounding the results, and to allow for a detailed image to be created. The movement would disrupt this.

Show question


Name one strength of using an fMRI.

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Any of the following: 

  • It is non-invasive. 
  • It has a high spatial resolution. 
  • It is accurate in building a map of the brain. 
  • It is good at assigning functions to an area of the brain.

Show question


Which of the following is correct?

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Blood flow is difficult to interpret in an fMRI.

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Name one weakness of using an fMRI.

Show answer


Any of the following: 

  • It is expensive. 
  • It has a low temporal resolution. 
  • The patient has to be still.

Show question


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