John M. Talmadge, M.D.

A Blog Covering Many Topics

Brain Scams: Don't Buy the MRI

Neuroimaging, or the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the brain, is a powerful research tool. At The Center for Brain Health our scientists are doing amazing work in unraveling what goes on in the human brain, and imaging studies are essential to their research. However, fMRI studies do not enable us to diagnose or treat psychiatric disorders more effectively. There is quite a gap between the research lab and the clinic. Nonetheless, entrepreneurs have started marketing brain scans to consumers, and some doctors are making claims not supported by the science. These claims have been widely criticized and condemned, but the average consumer is easily duped. My distinguished colleague Daniel Carlat, M.D. wrote a brilliant article which you can find here in Wired magazine. There is also extensive discussion of the subject on Quackwatch, as well as on the Science Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Carlat writes: "My journey through the land of functional neuroimaging has helped me to understand how spectacularly meaningless these images are likely to be. Most neuromarketers are using these scans as a way of sprinkling glitter over their products, so that customers will be persuaded that the pictures are giving them a deeper understanding of their mind. In fact, imaging technologies are still in their infancy. And while overenthusiastic practitioners may try to leapfrog over the science, real progress, which will take decades, will be made by patient and methodical researchers, not by entrepreneurs looking to make a buck."

If a person has a brain tumor, a brain aneurysm, or a stroke, then brain imaging can be helpful. However, brain imaging makes no difference (and makes no sense) in the treatment of problems like depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, alcoholism, addictions, or other commonly seen psychiatric disorders.

Brain imaging is very expensive, and the brain is exposed to radiation during a scan. This is an unnecessary risk, and a very expensive procedure, for anyone with a psychiatric disorder.