fMRI center's push to share data has neuroimagers on edge

By Shalmali Pal, staff writer

September 19, 2000 --

Launched less than three months ago, the National fMRI Data Center has already raised a ruckus in the neuroimaging community with its stated aim of making raw data from functional MRI studies available for public consumption.

Housed at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, the archive is designed to provide "a publicly accessible repository of peer-reviewed fMRI studies" as well as "providing all data necessary to interpret, analyze, and replicate these fMRI studies," according to an informational memo on the center's Web site (emphasis in original).

But fMRIDC director Michael Gazzaniga -- who is also director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth and editor of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience -- has gone a step further. Gazzaniga says all authors hoping to be published in that particular journal will be required to submit primary research information to the fMRIDC. And he has urged other cognitive neuroscience journal editors to follow suit.

Those actions led Vanderbilt University psychologist Dr. Isabel Gauthier to spearhead a letter-writing campaign expressing concern about the fMRIDC and its intentions. About 50 researchers, including psychologists, cognitive neurologists, and imaging experts, signed a letter that was circulated to several journals, as well as the National Science and Keck foundations, both of which are underwriting the database.

"We are particularly concerned with any journal’s decision to require all authors of all fMRI-related papers accepted for publication to submit all experimental data pertaining to their paper to the Data Center," the letter stated. "Mandatory submission for fMRI data impinges on the rights authors should have on the publication of findings stemming from their own work."

The letter went on to argue that one of the greatest dangers of publishing raw data is that someone else could co-opt the information and "preclude the original investigator from further benefit of his/her work."

In a written response, Gazzaniga said that in order for the neuroimaging field to grow, data should be readily accessible and shared. Other advocates of the data center cited the Human Genome Project and the Protein Data Bank as examples of sites where sequence data is housed in the public domain.

As a result, the "field of bioinformatics continues to advance rapidly, the databases are growing daily, and new algorithms, even new companies, are being created…the time is now propitious for the field [of neuroscience] to formulate a federation of distributed databases and analytical tools to maximize its efficient use of experimental data," said Stephen Koslow of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD (Nature Neuroscience, Sept. 2000, Vol.3:9, pp. 863-865).

Others, however, don't see a direct connection. Dr. Ravi Menon heads the Laboratory for Functional Magnetic Resonance Research, and is associate professor of diagnostic radiology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He also supported Gauthier’s letter expressing concern about the connection between the journal and the data center.

"The fundamental problem that I see is that while gene sequences or protein structures are a constant of nature (i.e. no matter how you measure it, you should get the same answer), the same cannot be said for human brain imaging," Menon wrote in correspondence with "Genetic information and protein structures…are reproducible properties of nature and should be accessible to all. The fMRI data is not like this."

While Menon emphasized that he is not opposed to the center itself, he questioned how data reporting will be accomplished.

"The result you get [from fMRI studies] depends on how you make the measurement (field strength, behavioral paradigm, processing algorithms)," he said. "The archived fMRI data is meaningless without a detailed description of the behavioral paradigms used for testing. Human behavior is completely inconsistent when compared to protein structure, and so one will not get the same answer on all subjects, particularly in higher order cognitive processing."

The fMRIDC informational memo assures readers that the data center knows that "the complexities of human experimentation require [that] a demanding set of associated experimental information be linked to the brain images." Although specifics were not set out, the memo noted that a variety of experimental paradigms will have to be part of each data set.

In addition, the center will allow authors to place their data in a holding pattern for a fixed period of time, during which visitors may peruse the published statistical data, but not the underlying functional and anatomical information.

As for other journals, the editors of Neuroreport and Neuroscience said they would not make it mandatory for authors to submit primary data to the center. Commenting in the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience, editor Dr. Charles Jennings laid out two criteria that must be met for the data-sharing project to be successful: an efficient infrastructure and a political consensus that the benefits of dissemination outweighs the risks.

"In the case of neuroimaging data, neither criterion has yet been met," Jennings wrote. "Although Gazzaniga may have misjudged the level of support he could expect from the community, he has clearly forced the pace in an important debate."

By Shalmali Pal staff writer
September 19, 2000

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