The effect of spatial resolution on decoding accuracy in fMRI multivariate pattern analysis

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Multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) in fMRI has been used to extract information from distributed cortical activation patterns, which may go undetected in conventional univariate analysis. However, little is known about the physical and physiological underpinnings of MVPA in fMRI as well as about the effect of spatial smoothing on its performance. Several studies have addressed these issues, but their investigation was limited to the visual cortex at 3 T with conflicting results. Here, we used ultra-high field (7 T) fMRI to investigate the effect of spatial resolution and smoothing on decoding of speech content (vowels) and speaker identity from auditory cortical responses. To that end, we acquired high-resolution (1.1 mm isotropic) fMRI data and additionally reconstructed them at 2.2 and 3.3 mm in-plane spatial resolutions from the original k-space data. Furthermore, the data at each resolution were spatially smoothed with different 3D Gaussian kernel sizes (i.e. no smoothing or 1.1, 2.2, 3.3, 4.4, or 8.8 mm kernels). For all spatial resolutions and smoothing kernels, we demonstrate the feasibility of decoding speech content (vowel) and speaker identity at 7 T using support vector machine (SVM) MVPA. In addition, we found that high spatial frequencies are informative for vowel decoding and that the relative contribution of high and low spatial frequencies is different across the two decoding tasks. Moderate smoothing (up to 2.2 mm) improved the accuracies for both decoding of vowels and speakers, possibly due to reduction of noise (e.g. residual motion artifacts or instrument noise) while still preserving information at high spatial frequency. In summary, our results show that – even with the same stimuli and within the same brain areas – the optimal spatial resolution for MVPA in fMRI depends on the specific decoding task of interest.

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