Category Archives: Neuroimaging

Porsche take EEG marketing bollocks to the next level


The only cool guy who ever drove a Porsche. EVER.

The arrival of cheap, portable EEG (electroencephalography) equipment in the last ten years has been a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you have initiatives like the OpenEEG project, which has democratised access to good-quality EEG hardware and software for researchers and hobbyists. On the other you have a huge proliferation of neuromarketing companies using the technology in (often) ridiculous ways.

Up until yesterday, my favourite example was this from Red Bull, who tried to record the brain activity of surfers with some waterproofed EEG gear. However, a video recently released by Porsche just took it to a whole new level. Porsche is the well-known midlife-crisis-enabling company that makes expensive toys for micro-phallused executives, but they clearly have ambitions to make a splash in the world of neuroscience with their latest stunt. Here’s the video:

…in which a test subject is first strapped into a jet fighter, and then a Porsche on a racetrack while his brain activity is putatively monitored in real time by a scientist. The claim is that pulling G’s in a Porsche is (nearly) as exciting as being in a jet fighter doing aerobatics.

There is so much wrong with this, that we could be here for hours, but let’s just pick a few of the major issues:

1. The video implies that the EEG monitoring is in real-time i.e. while the subject is up in the aircraft, or in the car. I don’t know what wireless protocol they’re using for that, but it’s definitely not one I’m familiar with.

2. They claim to be monitoring activity from the nucleus accumbens, a fairly deep brain nucleus, part of the basal ganglia, and a key component in the brain’s reward circuitry. Surface (scalp) EEG is really only good for recording activity from the surface of the brain (the cortex). I can’t find any human EEG work that claims to get signals from the nucleus accumbens, and I’d be very surprised if it were even possible (EEG’s not my area though, so feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m wrong on this one!).

3. Even if it were possible to get signals from the accumbens, they claim to be measuring dopamine release. No. NO. EEG measures the electrical activity of the brain. That’s it. This is a flat-out lie.

4. The subject’s head is banging around like crazy in both situations, and he’s gurning like Bez in the 90s. As this video very clearly shows, you get huge EEG artefacts just by smiling, or moving your eyes around, so the EEG data they’re recording must be absolute crap.

5. The putative ‘scientist’, Dr Robert Van Der Linden, who conducts the tests doesn’t actually seem to exist. I can’t find any evidence of him anyway. Is this guy just an actor?

6. For the fighter jet segment the subject’s helmet actually has ‘Maverick’ on it, FFS.

For more neurotwattery see the accompanying website, which has the marvellous tagline “The cars that will stimulate your prefrontal cortex”. I… just… can’t even.

The Amen Clinics advertising is dangerous, disingenuous bullshit

I’ve written before about Daniel Amen and his network of Amen Clinics, that (amongst other things) give utterly unnecessary doses of radiation to children. To briefly recap, Amen is a psychiatrist, author, motivational speaker etc. who has built his reputation and fortune on performing brain scans and then wildly exaggerating their diagnostic and prognostic usefulness. His clinics use an imaging modality called SPECT, a largely obsolete technology with terrible spatial resolution that’s been superseded by PET and MRI for most clinical and research purposes. The only real advantage of SPECT is that it’s much, much cheaper to perform than either PET or MRI, which is, of course, precisely why he uses it. He’s been at this a while too. This article in Wired from 2008 contains some choice quotes:

“Let’s look at your scans.” He takes the images that he printed out this morning and puts them side by side on a large table. He points to several views of the surface of my brain. “What I see here is that activity in your prefrontal cortex is low at rest but becomes better when you concentrate, and your thalamus becomes more active, too. I think this means you have a predisposition to depression.”

I nod. Scrutinizing the scans some more, he says, “You need to be busy to be happy. Your brain is cool at rest. You need stuff in your life to feel alive, together, and connected.” He looks at another view, this one showing only the most active regions of my brain. “In this scan, you have increased activity in your thalamus, your two basal ganglia, and your cingulate cortex.” He picks up a pen and draws a line connecting these four regions to the right lateral temporal lobe. “I call this the diamond plus.’ It’s a pattern of angst, and we see it in people who have had significant trauma in their lives.”

And these are the scans that he’s supposedly looking at while making these judgements:


What?! You can’t diagnose conditions like depression in an individual subject from even the very best brain scans, and you certainly can’t see the effects of such nebulous existential concepts like ‘angst’. What the hell is ‘angst’ supposed to mean in this context anyway?! He might as well be saying “The connections between your Shatner’s Bassoon and the peri-sinovial labio-ventral cortex is unusually cromulent and this might predispose you to brilligness, and excessive slithy toveing.” So, yeah, he’s a colossal bullshitter, who must have to keep a fire extinguisher handy at all times to dampen down the constant spontaneous combustion happening in his pants. This is nowhere more true than in the adverts for his clinics. Here’s one from the clinics LinkedIn page:


Brains get significantly less lumpy-looking after treatment – good to know. But hang on – brains are lumpy-looking. They’re covered in ridges and bumps! These smooth-looking pretty-coloured brains that Amen seems to think are great actually resemble lissencephaly; a very serious condition where the developing brain lacks the normal cortical folds. In this case, I’m pretty sure that the smoothness of the images is produced by the fact that the SPECT imaging methods he uses are so poor that they simply can’t show that much detail of the cortical surface. Also, I’ve no idea what the pretty colour-washes are meant to signify, if anything. To show you how easy it is to create images like this, here are some I threw together in about five minutes using FSLView and a standard-space MRI template (the MNI152 1mm template, bundled with FSL), by varying the threshold of the 3D rendered surface:

(Clicky for bigness)

(Clicky for bigness)

I’ve written before about why presenting brain images out of context in this way can be extremely misleading. Here’s another choice Amen-sponsored example:


As if it really needed saying; utterly meaningless nonsense. A Google image search brings up loads more examples, but I won’t sully your eyeballs with them unnecessarily. Amen’s use of SPECT images in this way is a gargantuan 20-year effort in energetic turd-polishing of a staggeringly disingenuous and despicable type, and I’m frankly amazed that he still seems to have an active licence to practice medicine.

Many thanks to @CousinAmygdala (and others) who first showed me these kinds of ads, and who also coined the most excellent term ‘neurofearmongering’.

Commercial fMRI neurobollocks – no, you cannot record your dreams (yet).

Cash cow? No.

Cash cow? I wish! But no.

With thanks to Micah Allen (@neuroconscience) for pointing this one out.

My day job is as an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) researcher, so you can imagine how tickled I was when I came across a brand-new neurobollocks-peddler who’s chosen to set up shop right on my patch!

Donald H. Marks is a New Jersey doctor who in 2013 set up a company called ‘Millennium Magnetic Technologies’. Readers old enough to remember Geocities sites from the mid-90s will probably derive some pleasant nostalgia from visiting the MMT website, which is refreshingly unencumbered by anything so prosaic as CSS. Anyway, MMT offer a range of services, under the umbrella of “disruptive patented specialty neuro imaging and testing services”. These include the “objective” documentation of pain, forensic interrogation using fMRI, and (most intriguingly) thought and dream recording.

This last one is something that’s expanded on at some length in a breathlessly uncritical article in the hallowed pages of International Business Times (no, me neither). According to the article:

“The recording and storing of thoughts, dreams and memories for future playback – either on a screen or through reliving them in the mind itself – is now being offered as a service by a US-based neurotechnology startup.

Millenium Magnetic Technologies (MMT) is the first company to commercialise the recording of resting state magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, offering clients real-time stream of consciousness and dream recording.”

And he does this using his patented (of course) ‘cognitive engram technology’, and all for the low, low price of $2000 per session.

It’s clear from the article and the MMT website that he’s using some kind of MVPA (multi-voxel pattern analysis) technique with the fMRI data. This technique first came up about 10 years ago, and is based on machine learning algorithms. Briefly, an algorithm is trained, and ‘learns’ to distinguish differences in a set of fMRI data. The algorithm is then tested with a new set of data to see if what it learned can generalise. If the two sets of data contain the same features (e.g.the participant was exposed to the same stimulus in both scans) the algorithm will identify bits of the brain that contain a consistent response. The logic is that if a brain area consistently shows the same pattern of response to a stimulus, that area must be involved in representing some aspect of that stimulus. This family of techniques has turned out to be very useful in lots of ways, but one of the most interesting applications has been in so-called ‘brain-reading’ studies. In a sense, the decoding of the test data makes predictions about the mental state of the participant; it tries to predict what stimulus they were experiencing at the time of the scan. A relatively accessible introduction to these kinds of studies can be found here.

So, the good Dr Marks (who, by the way, has but a single paper using fMRI to his name on Pubmed) is using this technology to read people’s minds. However, needless to say, there are several issues with this. Firstly, to generate even a vaguely accurate solution, these algorithms generally need a great deal of data. The dream decoding study that MMT link to on their website (commentary, original paper) required participants to sleep in the MRI scanner in three-hour blocks, on between seven and ten occasions. Even after all that, the accuracy of the predictive decoding (distinguishing between two pairs of different stimuli, e.g. people vs. buildings) was only between 55 and 60%. Statistically significant, but not terribly impressive, given that the chance level was 50%.

My point here is not to denigrate this particular study (which is honestly, a pretty amazing achievement), it’s to make the point that this technology is not even close to being a practical commercial proposition. These methods are improving all the time, but they’re still a long way from being reliable, convenient, or robust enough to be a true sci-fi style general-purpose mind-reading technology.

This apparently doesn’t bother Dr Marks though. He’s charging people $2000 a session to have their thoughts ‘recorded’ in the vague hope that some kind of future technology will be able to play them back:

“The visual reconstruction is kind of crude right now but the data is definitely there and it will get better. It’s just a matter of refinement,” Marks says. “That information is stored – once you’ve recorded that information it’s there forever. In the future we’ll be able to reconstruct the data we have now much better.”

No. N. O. No. The data is absolutely, categorically not there. Standard fMRI scans these days record using a resolution of 2-3mm. A cubic volume of brain tissue 2-3mm on each side probably contains several hundred thousand neurons, each of which may be responding to different stimuli, or involved in different processes. fMRI is therefore a very, very blunt tool, in terms of capturing the fine detail of what’s going on. It’s like trying to take apart a swiss watch mechanism when the only tool you have is a giant pillow, and you’re wearing boxing gloves. A further complication is that we still have so much to learn about exactly how and where memories are actually represented and stored in the brain. To accurately capture memories, thoughts, and even dreams, we’ll have to use a much, much better brain-recording technology. It’s potentially possible someday (and that ‘someday’ might even be relatively close), but the technology simply hasn’t been invented yet.

So, the idea that you can read someone’s mind in a single session, and preserve their treasured memories on a computer hard disk for future playback is simply hogwash right now. I’m as excited by the possibilities in this area as the next geek, but it’s just not possible right now. Dr Marks is charging people $2000 a pop for a pretty useless service, no matter how optimistic he might be about some mythical kind of future mind-reading playback device.

NB. I’ve got a lot more to say about MMT’s other services too, but this post’s got a bit out of hand already, so I’ll save that for a future one…

More eye-wateringly egregious neuromarketing bullshit from Martin Lindstrom

Martin Lindstrom is a branding consultant, marketing author, and (possibly because that wasn’t quite provoking enough of a violently hateful reaction in people) also apparently on a one-man mission to bring neuroscience into disrepute. He’s the genius behind the article in the New York Times in 2011 (‘You love your iPhone. Literally’) which interpreted activity in the insular cortex (one of the most commonly active areas in a very wide variety of tasks and situations) with genuine ‘love’ for iPhones. This was a stunningly disingenuous and simple-minded example of reverse inference and was universally derided by every serious commentator, and many of the more habitually rigour-phobic ones as well.

Unfortunately, it appears his reputation as a massive bull-shitting neuro-hack hasn’t quite crossed over from the neuroscience community into the mainstream, as I realised this weekend when I settled down to watch The Greatest Movie Ever SoldMorgan Spurlock’s documentary about branding, product placement and the general weirdness of the advertising world is generally excellent, however, it unfortunately makes the mistake of wheeling on Lindstrom for a segment on neuromarketing. You can see his piece from the movie in the video below:

Lindstrom conducts a fMRI scan with Spurlock as the subject, and exposes him to a variety of advertisments in the scanner. Fair enough, so far. Then however, Lindstrom explains the results using a big-screen in his office. The results they discuss were apparently in response to a Coke commercial. According to Lindstrom the activation here shows that he was “highly engaged” with the stimulus, and furthermore was so “emotionally engaged” that the amygdala which is responsible for “fear, and the release of dopamine” responded. Lindstrom then has no problem in making a further logical leap and saying “this is addiction”.

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 22.01.26

Needless to say, I have a somewhat different interpretation. Even from the shitty low-res screenshot grabbed from the video and inserted above I can tell a few things; primarily that Lindstrom’s pants are most definitely on fire. Firstly (and least interestingly) Lindstrom uses FSL for his fMRI analysis, but is using the crappy default results display. Learning to use FSLView would look much more impressive Martin! Secondly, from the very extensive activity in the occipital lobe (and elsewhere), I’m able to pretty firmly deduce that this experiment was poorly controlled. fMRI experiments rely on the method of subtraction, meaning that you have two close-but-not-identical stimuli, and you subtract brain activity related to one from the other. As in this case, say that you’re interested in the brain response to a Coca-Cola commercial. An appropriate control stimulus might therefore be, say, a Pepsi commercial, or even better, the Coke commercial digitally manipulated to include a Pepsi bottle rather than a Coke one. Then you subtract the ‘Pepsi’ scan from the ‘Coke’ scan, and what you’re left with is brain activity that is uniquely related to Coke. All the low-level elements of the two stimuli (brightness, colour, whatever) are the same, so subtracting one from the other leaves you with zero. If you just show someone the Coke advert and compare it to a resting baseline (i.e. doing nothing, no stimulus) you’ll get massive blobs of activity in the visual cortex and a lot of other places, but these results will be non-specific and not tell you anything about Coke – the occipital lobe will respond to absolutely any visual stimulus.

By the very widespread activity evident in the brain maps above, it appears that this is exactly what Lindstrom has done here – compared the Coke advert to a resting baseline. This means the results are pretty much meaningless. I can even make a good stab at why he did it this way – because if he’d done it properly, he’d have got no results at all from a single subject. fMRI is statistically noisy, and getting reliable results from a single subject is possible, but not easy. Gaming the experiment by comparing active stimuli to nothing is one way of ensuring that you get lots of impressive-looking activation clusters, that you can then use to spin any interpretation you want.

fMRI is a marvellous, transformative technology and is currently changing the way we view ourselves and the world. Mis-use of it by opportunistic, half-educated jokers like Lindstrom impoverishes us all.

Neuromarketing gets a neurospanking

A brief post today just to point you towards a couple of recent articles which pull down the pants of the neuromarketing business and give it a thorough neurospanking (© @psychusup).

The first one is a Q&A with Sally Satel, one of the authors of the recently-published and pretty well-received book Brainwashed. Sally makes some good points about ‘neuroredundancy’ – that brain scan experiments often don’t really tell you anything you don’t already know. Read it here. There’s also a good article on Bloomberg by Sally and Scott Lillienfield here.

The other one is an article at by associate-of-this-parish Matt Wall, which focuses particularly on a recent trend in neuromarketing circles – the use of cheap ‘n’ nasty EEG equipment and (potentially) dodgy analysis methods in order to generate  sciencey-looking, but probably fairly meaningless results. Read that one here.

That’s all for now – I’ll be back with a proper post soon(ish).

Feminist-inspired neurobollocks from Daniel Amen

Not strictly relevant - I just like it.

Not strictly relevant – I just like it.

I’ve written before about Dr Daniel Amen, the owner of a network of private clinics which perform completely unnecessary brain scans using SPECT (a cheap alternative to PET that involves dosing people with gamma radiation) in order to make spurious diagnoses of everything from ADHD to ‘marital problems’. Unsurprisingly, Dr Amen is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post; the news source second only to the Daily Fail in its tendency towards rigour-phobic science coverage. A couple of articles he’s posted up there in the last few weeks have caught my eye because of their general dreadfulness, but also because of their particular dreadfulness about women.

The first one is titled ‘Is it time to let women take the wheel?’, in which Dr Amen argues that the world would be a better place if more women were in positions of power and influence. This is a pretty well-worn argument, and intuitively it seems like there might well be some value in it, but Dr Amen claims to have some new evidence:

“the inner CEO (the prefrontal cortex) of women is much more active than men. This area of the brain governs things like judgment, forethought, organization, planning, empathy, impulse control and learning from the mistakes you make. These are the very qualities needed to successfully manage a company, lead a nation, mediate crisis, and get people working together toward a common goal.”

little bit of a leap there, don’t you think Dr Amen? To my utter shock and amazement the data he’s talking about come from an unpublished analysis of data collected in his clinics.

A couple of weeks later, he’s at it again, jumping on the Lean in bandwagon with another piece: ‘Lean in, and why women’s brains are wired for leadership’:

“women are actually wired for success. The “CEO part of the brain” — the prefrontal cortex, which controls judgment, organization, impulse control, and planning — is more active in women, suggesting that women are wired to hold positions of power and run the world.”

Both these articles are pretty transparent attempts to plug his new book Unleash the power of the female brainThe broad thrust of the articles (that we need more women in positions of influence, and that they have a lot to contribute in such positions) is unarguable, however suggesting women are ‘wired for success’ because of differences in cerebral blood flow is patently ridiculous, and a massive generalisation. Clearly some women make excellent leaders, and some do not (just like men).  It’s been known for some time that women’s brains do show somewhat higher blood flow than men’s, however the most likely explanation is that it simply reflects underlying gender differences in Cardiac Index (a body-size normalised measure of cardiac output), which is generally higher in women. In other words, the blood-flow differences in the brain might be a cardiac effect and have very little functional role at all.  There is a very interesting discussion to be had about sex differences in brain function and what they might mean, however the differences are generally fairly subtle and nuanced, and the chain of logic connecting them to (group, or population-level) behaviour is insubstantial.

Making bullshit claims about women based on dodgy science and cherry-picked brain data doesn’t advance the feminist cause one little bit. Furthermore, this approach completely ignores the very real and often highly disturbing social challenges that women face on a daily basis. ‘Neurofeminism‘ is apparently a thing now (haven’t read that book, can’t really comment), but these articles make no useful contribution to that discourse whatsoever.

Another mostly irrelevant, picture; just because I really fucking hate Twilight.

Another irrelevant, picture; just because I really fucking detest Twilight.

Telegraph article on neuromarketing – dreadful stuff

I’ve so far resisted talking about a) neuromarketing, and b) how neuroscience is portrayed in the popular press, because I honestly felt that if I started in on either of those topics I would probably never be able to stop and there would just not be enough words on the entire internetz. Fortunately, an opportunity has come along for me to save valuable time and effort and heap derision on both targets at once.

Molly Crockett pointed me towards this article in the Telegraph, which is an uncritically fawning act of fellatio performed on Steven Sands and his Sands Research company. There are plenty of wince-inducing quotes in there, but by far my favourite is this little gem:

“It’s all very Minority Report,” Steve Sands says, referring to the Tom Cruise film in which a special police department known as “PreCrime” tracks down criminals based on knowledge provided by psychics. “But we’re not too far from that now.”

We’re not too far from having mutant humans linked together in a hive-mind predicting future events using psychic pre-cognitive abilities? Good to know, Steve.*

*Unless he meant the computer interfaces of course, which is generally what people mean when they talk about Minority Report. In the movie, Tom Cruise had to put on a pair of special gloves to do whizzy hand-wavy things with his computer; we’re already way beyond that.


Utterly shameless diagnostic brain imaging neurobollocks

The impish Dr Amen, with (presumably) some fans. Wonder if he's planning on scanning their brains?

The impish Dr Amen, with (presumably) some fans.

Christian Jarrett’s article in Psychology Today (“Your 5-Step Self-Defence Program Against Neuro-Nonsense”) that I linked to in my previous post briefly mentioned diagnostic SPECT (Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging, and the paper he cites (Chandler and Chatterjee, 2011 – open access – yay!) goes into some more detail about this particular brand of neurobollocks. After looking into it myself a little bit, I was absolutely stunned that some doctors a) had the gall to to continue offering these diagnostic methods and treatments to people, and b) that they were allowed to continue doing so by medical regulators (I guess that’s the USA’s free-market, laissez-faire approach to medical care – gotta love it!).

So, a little background. A common theme in neuroimaging research is attempting to identify differences in the brains between different groups of people. Male/female, musicians/non-musicians, schizophrenics/non-schizophrenics, whatever. This is all very interesting and worthwhile – if we can identify a common brain pattern or structure that is different in say, schizophrenia then we may be able to devise better treatments that target it. Voxel-based morphometry is one common method of looking at differences and assesses the relative size/shape of different brain structures, but there are lots of other methods that either look at anatomical or functional differences. The important point here is that you always need a group of people of each type that you want to compare. People’s brains vary pretty widely in the size and shape of the sulci and gyri, and in the amount/location of functional activity that you see in a given task. What is being sought in these studies is a reliable difference that is consistent across the group, and remains as a statistical effect, once all the (random) individual variation has been taken into account. Many people’s brains are a bit funny-looking, but 99 times out of 100 it’s just normal individual variation.

What this means is that developing imaging-based biomarkers that reliably indicate particular states or conditions in an individual is fraught with difficulty. Some progress is apparently being made in this endeavour, but a lot of people are still very sceptical about the idea, and rightly so.

However, Dr Amen, (of the eponymous ‘Amen Clinics‘) is certainly not one of those people. He’s been using diagnostic SPECT imaging for years, and has clinics in six major US cities. Dr Amen uses SPECT imaging to diagnose ADHD, anxiety, depression, addiction, autism, ‘marital conflict'(?!), and for generally healthy people who want to lose weight, or just ‘optimise’ their brain. How does taking a SPECT image of their brain help with this? It’s not really clear, but unsurprisingly, Dr Amen has a slick-looking brain-training-like program (‘The Amen Solution’) that promises all the usual bollocks, and an online store filled with his (many!) books, DVDs, etc. plus (of course) his own brand of dietary supplements. So, basically, I’m guessing that the results of the SPECT scans in his clinics typically indicate that the patient needs to complete a course of his brain-training, or supplements, or both.

Just to be clear – there’s absolutely no way that a SPECT scan of an individual can show up anything useful in diagnosing these disorders. Dr Amen is charging people thousands of dollars, and injecting them with radioactive substances, for absolutely no sound medical reason. 

Why use SPECT? The spatial resolution of the images is crap, and no-one uses it for clinical or research work that much anymore. However, it’s the cheapest of the 3D imaging techniques that can show functional activation. MRI scanners are expensive to buy and maintain, and need fairly large facilities. PET scanners use short-lived radio-isotopes, meaning you have to synthesise them yourself and use them immediately – you need a team of chemists and a well-kitted out laboratory. SPECT uses off-the-shelf isotopes with long half-lives; much, much cheaper and easier.

Dr Amen is a funny one, to be honest. Unlike the Brain Balance Center charlatans , he at least has some medical training and certification, and he publishes some research papers, occasionally even in peer-reviewed journals. He may perhaps be a true believer in what he’s doing, which makes him less mendacious but unfortunately also more stupid. Of course, where one quack leads others will follow, and copycat clinics have sprung up, also using SPECT, and claiming similar things; Dr SPECT scan, and CereScan are two of them. Dr Amen’s slick, media-savvy approach (he seems to be a regular on those dreadful audience-whooping, self-help TV shows they have in the US) marks him out as a serious operator though. Because he has some appropriate training, and has published some research, the Amen Clinics only gets a 9 out of 10 on the Neurobollocks rating scale; I know, I know, I’m just too generous sometimes, it’s a problem.

You can read more about the radiant Dr Amen and his techniques here, and there’s also an interesting Q & A with him over on QuackWatch.