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Functional Imaging use in "Reading" the Brain

Functional MRI used in brain scans for damage
Functional MRI used in brain scans for damagePhoto by Handout

Functional imaging studies are conducted using a myriad of electronic or magnetic devices in order to help to see the actual intricacies of the brain. In some instances, such as with positron emission tomography (PET) scans, radioactive chemicals are injected into the system with the purpose of highlighting specific sections of the brain in different situations such as during high stress or deep emotions. Other medical marvels like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG) testing can also help a neurologist to determine issues that involve the brain and how it behaves under different situations (Breedlove, Watson, & Rosenzweig, 2010).

Implications to Functional Imaging

Negative implications. Gerlach (2007) indicates that there may not be enough studies done to determine whether there is a good amount of quantifiable data amassed to determine whether PET and MRI scans are completely accurate. The implications of limited confidence in accuracy depending on the stimulus: word, picture, or facial, is that the results may be misread by a novice who is trying to decipher what they are seeing in the imaging.
Another implication is that MRI’s are magnetic and if a person does not realize they have a pin in their head (or body) or if they are unknowingly claustrophobic, they may panic once they are put into the MRI tube and skew any results that the neurologist may be looking for (Farah, 2012).
PET scans use radioactive chemicals that are injected into the participant (Farah, 2012). If there is a negative reaction by the patient to the chemicals then there could be more damage to their brain or body (Farah). If too much or too little of the chemicals are introduced then the imaging may not be as accurate, either.
There seems to be new considerations involving using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)-based lie detector tests, as well. The testing indicates that there is the potential for deception when using such a method to determine the truth or lies that a person may tell (Farah, 2012).
Trusting imaging completely without interpretation by a qualified researcher may create incorrect readings in the evaluation. It is important that more than one researcher be available to interpret the data to ensure there are fewer errors being made. Even though, there is no perfect system in place that enables the assurance that readings are accurate (Farah, 2012).

Positive implications. Not all the news is bad news. With technological advancements comes the opportunity for neuroscientists and neuropsychologists to better see what is going on in a living mind (Breedlove, et al., 2010; Gerlach, 2007). In previous times it was necessary to study the dead brains of the mentally ill, but this study style is obviously limited in researchers’ ability to know what is normal in a living person and what happens to the brain of a person with abnormal behavior.

In lay-terms. There are a lot of new technologies available for researchers who wish to understand the underlying behaviors of both supposedly normal individuals as well as those who display negative or abnormal behavior. Functional imaging uses machines and radioactive chemicals to determine what happens to a living person’s brain when they are shown pictures, when they hear words, or when they see facial expressions. They also use these machines to determine the level of mental illness like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s that a person may be suffering from.
The radioactive chemicals are relatively harmless with a very short half-life, which means that the radioactive properties fade away quickly with little to no harm to the patient. Other machines use magnets to transfer images to computer screens for a researcher or technician to read and decipher.