Sources and implications of whole-brain fMRI signals in humans

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Abstract

Whole-brain fMRI signals are a subject of intense interest: variance in the global fMRI signal (the spatial mean of all signals in the brain) indexes subject arousal, and psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and autism have been characterized by differences in the global fMRI signal. Further, vigorous debates exist on whether global signals ought to be removed from fMRI data. However, surprisingly little research has focused on the empirical properties of whole-brain fMRI signals. Here we map the spatial and temporal properties of the global signal, individually, in 1000+ fMRI scans. Variance in the global fMRI signal is strongly linked to head motion, to hardware artifacts, and to respiratory patterns and their attendant physiologic changes. Many techniques used to prepare fMRI data for analysis fail to remove these uninteresting kinds of global signal fluctuations. Thus, many studies include, at the time of analysis, prominent global effects of yawns, breathing changes, and head motion, among other signals. Such artifacts will mimic dynamic neural activity and will spuriously alter signal covariance throughout the brain. Methods capable of isolating and removing global artifactual variance while preserving putative “neural” variance are needed; this paper adopts no position on the topic of global signal regression.

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