NeuroImage (Jan 2024)

A precision neuroscience approach to estimating reliability of neural responses during emotion processing: Implications for task-fMRI

  • John C. Flournoy,
  • Nessa V. Bryce,
  • Meg J. Dennison,
  • Alexandra M. Rodman,
  • Elizabeth A. McNeilly,
  • Lucy A. Lurie,
  • Debbie Bitran,
  • Azure Reid-Russell,
  • Constanza M. Vidal Bustamante,
  • Tara Madhyastha,
  • Katie A. McLaughlin

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 285
p. 120503


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Recent work demonstrating low test-retest reliability of neural activation during fMRI tasks raises questions about the utility of task-based fMRI for the study of individual variation in brain function. Two possible sources of the instability in task-based BOLD signal over time are noise or measurement error in the instrument, and meaningful variation across time within-individuals in the construct itself—brain activation elicited during fMRI tasks. Examining the contribution of these two sources of test-retest unreliability in task-evoked brain activity has far-reaching implications for cognitive neuroscience. If test-retest reliability largely reflects measurement error, it suggests that task-based fMRI has little utility in the study of either inter- or intra-individual differences. On the other hand, if task-evoked BOLD signal varies meaningfully over time, it would suggest that this tool may yet be well suited to studying intraindividual variation. We parse these sources of variance in BOLD signal in response to emotional cues over time and within-individuals in a longitudinal sample with 10 monthly fMRI scans. Test-retest reliability was low, reflecting a lack of stability in between-person differences across scans. In contrast, within-person, within-session internal consistency of the BOLD signal was higher, and within-person fluctuations across sessions explained almost half the variance in voxel-level neural responses. Additionally, monthly fluctuations in neural response to emotional cues were associated with intraindividual variation in mood, sleep, and exposure to stressors. Rather than reflecting trait-like differences across people, neural responses to emotional cues may be more reflective of intraindividual variation over time. These patterns suggest that task-based fMRI may be able to contribute to the study of individual variation in brain function if more attention is given to within-individual variation approaches, psychometrics—beginning with improving reliability beyond the modest estimates observed here, and the validity of task fMRI beyond the suggestive associations reported here.